Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: The War in the South, 1778–1781

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


The battle of Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, 1781.

The battle of Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, 1781.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

The failure to restore royal authority in the northern colonies, along with the signing of an alliance between the American rebels and the French monarchy, led the British to try an entirely new strategy. Believing that there were considerable numbers of loyalists living in the southern colonies, they made that region the focus of their operations for the remainder of the war. But while they managed to win several dramatic battlefield victories over the Americans, they were ultimately no more successful in restoring control here than they had been in the North. Disappointed, the British general Lord Cornwallis led his army northward into Virginia—and straight into a trap laid by Washington's army and the French fleet.

This lesson will examine military operations during the second, or southern, phase of the American Revolution. It will also study the French alliance and the role of African-Americans, since both of these would have significant impact on operations in the South. Students will use documents and maps to learn why the focus of the war shifted to the South, and why the War of Independence was won there.

Guiding Questions

  • Why did the decision of the British leadership to move the war into the South prove unsuccessful?

Learning Objectives

  • List the major terms of the Franco-American alliance, and explain their importance to the cause of independence
  • Identify the most important military engagements in the South and explain their significance for the outcome of the war
  • Explain the role that African-Americans played in the southern phase of the war


The failure of the British to inflict decisive defeat on the Continental Army led them in late 1778 to a major reconsideration of strategy. Although they continued to occupy the critical port of New York, they decided to shift the focus of their campaigns to the South—particularly the Carolinas. There, they believed, they would receive the help of large numbers of Americans who were still loyal to the Crown. Moreover, by occupying the major ports, they could bring about the slow strangulation of American trade.

The expectation of Loyalist support in the South was critical. There had been Loyalists in the North, and these, too, had been organized into militias to fight for the Crown. However, the South was different in that it was home to large numbers of African-American slaves. In 1775 the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation promising freedom to any slave who would take up arms for the British cause. Several hundred black men fought on the British side at the Battle of Great Bridge, a minor engagement that took place on December 9, 1775. The British lost this battle; nevertheless they remained optimistic about the possibility of recruiting African-American slaves in the South.

Initially the southern campaign proved highly successful for the British Army. Late in 1778 they captured Savannah, and fought off an American counterattack the following year. In 1780 a larger British force seized Charleston, the most important port city in the South, at which point they marched inland under the command of General Cornwallis. That summer at Camden, South Carolina, they crushed an American army under General Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga, leading to fears that all of the South might fall under British control.

At this point, however, British plans began to unravel. Their strategy called for organizing Loyalists into militias that could defend the places that they had captured, thus freeing up the more professional British Army to move on to new conquests. But the Loyalists ultimately were not up to the task, and succumbed to frequent hit and run attacks by locals who supported the revolution. In October the patriot militias scored a decisive defeat against the Loyalists at Kings Mountain, South Carolina, effectively ending any meaningful involvement by the Loyalists in the campaign.

Emboldened by this victory, General Nathanael Greene arrived in North Carolina to reorganize the Continental Army in the South. In January 1781 they inflicted a defeat on Cornwallis at Cowpens, South Carolina. The two sides clashed again in March at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, and while Greene and his men were forced to retreat from the battlefield, no less than one quarter of the British troops involved were killed or wounded. Cornwallis decided to withdraw from the Carolinas, and led his army north into Virginia.

Meanwhile, George Washington was in New Jersey, planning along with America's French allies an attack on British-held New York. However, when they received word that Cornwallis was moving north they changed their strategy. Washington brought a combined French and American army to Virginia, while a French fleet moved off the coast-driving off a British fleet and cutting Cornwallis off from any hope of resupply. Cornwallis occupied Yorktown, but his position was untenable, caught as he was between Washington's force on land and the French Navy at sea. After fighting the last major engagement of the war-the Battle of Yorktown-Cornwallis surrendered to Washington on October 19, 1781. This event was later memorialized in a famous painting by John Trumbull, which today adorns the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, DC (available at the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Crossroads of Virginia; note that, contrary to what is portrayed in the painting, Cornwallis was not present at the surrender ceremony-claiming illness, he sent his deputies to handle the negotiations).

Teachers seeking more detailed information on the military aspects of the Southern Phase of the Revolutionary War are encouraged to consult "The Winning of Independence, 1777–1783", located at the U.S. Army Center for Military History, accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library. Another helpful background resource is "The American Revolution: Lighting Freedom's Flame" (accessible via the National Park Service's EDSITEment reviewed "Links to the Past". In particular, this site features a timeline of events, a capsule history of the war, and an essay on African-Americans in the Revolutionary Period.

Preparation Instructions

Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.

Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the first and second activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.

Perhaps most importantly, study the interactive map that accompanies this lesson. Clicking on the numbered locations will produce pop-ups that explain in greater detail what happened at those particular sites, as well as providing links for more material, such as documents, maps, and detailed histories.

Analyzing primary sources:

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers helpful pages on "Making Sense of Maps" and "Making Sense of Letters and Diaries" which gives helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Franco-American Alliance

The alliance with France was critical to the American victory. It was also one of the primary reasons behind the British decision in 1778 to withdraw from Philadelphia and focus operations on the South. In this lesson, students will examine excerpts from a series of documents (available at the EDSITEment-reviewed resource The Avalon Project) associated with the conclusion of that alliance. Specifically students will be asked to compare what terms Congress hoped to receive from the French with the actual terms of the final treaty.

Teachers should begin this exercise by reviewing the final activity of the previous lesson. Specifically, students should be directed to the interactive map to read about events in the northern colonies during the second half of 1776. They should also look again at the first document from Activity 4 (the December 22, 1776 letter from Washington to Joseph Spencer) to remind them of the dire situation that the Continental Army faced at the end of that year. By way of introducing this activity, engage the students in a discussion of what the rebels needed in order to continue the war effort. Then the remainder of the activity will demonstrate how the French alliance would be helpful.

Once this preliminary step is complete, students should be divided into groups of four. Two members of each group will take on the role of the American diplomats sent to France in 1776, and will read for homework excerpts from the following, available on pages 1–4 of the Text Document that accompanies this lesson:

As they read, students in this group should record on a worksheet (available on this PDF) a list of what Congress hopes to get from the alliance, specifying whether these are absolutely essential, or optional.

The remaining two members of each group will take on the role of the French monarchy, examining excerpts, for homework, from the actual treaties, available on pages 6-9 of the Text Document:

On their worksheets pages 9–10 of the Text Document they will list the actual terms of the treaties.

After students have completed their respective worksheets, instruct students to discuss and compare their worksheets in their groups with the opposing position. Students should pay careful attention to what was wanted versus what was achieved. To conclude, the teacher should lead a class discussion in which the expectations of Congress are compared with what the treaty actually accomplished. Teachers should mention that, even though the French sale of military supplies to the United States does not appear in any of the treaties, the U.S. delegation was able to purchase such supplies in significant amounts. Teachers should also make it clear what the French stood to gain from the treaties—revenge against Great Britain for the humiliating defeat of 1763.

Activity 2. African-Americans in the Revolutionary War

One of the things that distinguished the southern phase of the American Revolution was the presence of large numbers of African-American slaves in the region. These were considered an essential part of British strategy, as it was hoped that they could be induced through promises of freedom to turn against—or at least desert—their masters who supported the revolution.

In this activity students will read (possibly as a homework assignment) several documents pertaining to African-Americans in the war. The following come from the EDSITEment-reviewed resources History Matters and Teaching American History, Africans in America (accessible via History Matters), and Black Loyalists (also accessible via History Matters). Excerpts, however, are available on pages 12–15 of the Text Document.

To help guide them through these readings, students should answer the following questions, available in worksheet form on page 11 of the Text Document:

  • What do you think Lord Dunmore hoped to accomplish through his proclamation?
  • How did the Virginia legislature respond to Lord Dunmore's proclamation?
  • Why did Boston King decide to join the British? Why might this decision have been difficult for him?
  • Why did Henry Laurens think that slaves would make good soldiers?
  • What do Henry Laurens' letters tell us about his attitude toward African-Americans?
  • What reservations did George Washington have about the idea of arming slaves?

After having completed the readings, teachers should hold an in-class discussion in which students imagine that they are African-American slaves. Would they have chosen to join the British, and, if so, why? What would have been the practical difficulties involved in doing so? A good way of concluding the discussion might be to ask if there was any reasonable way that the Continental Congress could have kept slaves like Boston King from siding with the British. Of course, it is likely that someone will suggest the abolition of slavery, which could lead to a fruitful discussion of why the Congress never seriously considered this option.

Activity 3. The Course of the War in the South

At this point students will use the interactive map to trace the events of the war from the British capture of Savannah in 1778 through the Franco-American victory at Yorktown in 1781. Clicking on the locations indicated will produce pop-up windows with additional information on what happened there.

After studying the interactive map students will be asked to list what they consider to be the three most important battles of the war in the South, and explain why they think those particular engagements were so critical. After students have individually completed the worksheet, break students into pairs where they will discuss their individual answers and then compile, as a group, the top three battles and the reasons behind their choices. Finally, have each group discuss their findings before the entire class and have them defend their choices. The entire class should then decide on which three battles were the most significant. Of course, in order to do this it will first be necessary to determine some sort of standard for what makes a battle significant. Is it the number of people involved? The losses suffered? The political implications that stemmed from it?


After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (1–2 paragraph) essays answering the following questions:

  • What was the United States promised in its treaties with France?
  • How did the presence of large numbers of slaves in the South affect the course of the war there?
  • What were the most important battles in the South, and why were they important?

An alternative method of assessment might be to divide the class into small groups, and have each one develop a thesis statement that encompasses all the various elements of this lesson. They should be given roughly 15 minutes to do this. Once they have done so, each group should write its thesis statement on the board, and as a class discuss which is the best, and why. The entire class could then be given a homework assignment to write an essay that defends the statement.

Students should be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:

  • Loyalists
  • General Cornwallis
  • General Nathanael Greene
  • Kings Mountain
  • Cowpens
  • Guilford Courthouse
  • Yorktown

Extending The Lesson

Lacking a substantial navy, the United States relied heavily on privateers—that is, private ship owners who were licensed by the government to attack enemy vessels. More information about this is available at the page "Privateers in the American Revolution," which may be accessed from "Links to the Past," an EDSITEment-reviewed site maintained by the National Park Service. In addition, among the documents of the Continental Congress located at the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Project are several pieces of legislation related to this subject:

Any of the locations indicated on the interactive map could be the subject for deeper study. In particular, Links to the Past, the EDSITEment-reviewed site of the National Park Service contains a resource called "Teaching with Historic Places", which includes several lesson plans dealing with specific battles from the Revolutionary War.

Students could use the events indicated on the interactive map, as well as the documents referenced in this lesson, to develop an interactive timeline of the southern phase of the Revolutionary War. An excellent resource that allows students to design this timeline may be found at Read-Write-Think.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > People > Hispanic
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Americas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Modern World
  • History and Social Studies > People > Native American
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Modern World (1500 CE-Present)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Role-playing/Performance
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • John Moser, Ashland University (Ashland, OH)
  • Lori Hahn, West Branch High School (Morrisdale, PA)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources

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