The Snow Campaign of 1775 — South Carolina Patriots Take Control of the Backcountry

November–December, 1775

The Snow Campaign of 1775 was fought between Patriot Militia and British Loyalists in November and December 1775, in the South Carolina Backcountry. Patriot forces won the conflict, allowing them to take control of the region.

Francis Marion, Illustration

Francis Marion participated in the Snow Campaign. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Snow Campaign Summary

The Snow Campaign of 1775 was an important military operation that took place in the South Carolina Backcountry during the early part of the American Revolutionary War. Following the outbreak of the war, South Carolina was divided between Patriots and Loyalists, with both vying for control of the Backcountry, where the village of Ninety-Six served as the center of activity on the western frontier. While Patriots and Loyalists skirmished at the Siege of Savage’s Old Fields from November 19–21, 1775, a Patriot force, led by Colonel Richard Richardson, moved into the Backcountry. As Richardson moved into the region, volunteers joined his ranks, allowing him to overwhelm the Loyalist opposition. During the Patriot victory at the Battle of Great Cane Break, Loyalist leaders were captured, giving the South Carolina Provincial Congress control of the Backcountry. As Richardson and his men returned to the coast, the weather turned to heavy snow, sleet, and rain, earning the nickname “Snow Campaign.”

William Henry Drayton, Illustration
William Henry Drayton was a leading Patriot in South Carolina. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Snow Campaign Facts

  • Date Started: The Snow Campaign started in late November 1775.
  • Date Ended: It Snow Campaign ended in December 1775.
  • Location: The Snow Campaign was fought in the Backcountry region of South Carolina.
  • Theater: The battle took place in the Southern Theater of the American Revolutionary War.
  • Campaign: The Snow Campaign was a standalone campaign.
  • Who Won: Patriot Militia, led by Colonel Richard Richardson, won the Snow Campaign.

What Happened During the Snow Campaign?

The Snow Campaign was the culmination of efforts by South Carolina Patriots to take control of the Backcountry and subdue Loyalist opposition. Colonel Richard Richardson led a large force of militia and regulars into the Backcountry, dispersing Loyalist Militia and arresting their leaders. The Campaign ended with the Patriot victory at the Battle of Great Cane Brake. During the return march, the Patriots suffered from harsh weather, including heavy snow, which is why the expedition is known as the “Snow Campaign.”

Division in the South Carolina Backcountry

Although the center of opposition to British policy toward the colonies was in Massachusetts, there was unrest throughout the other regions. In the South Carolina Backcountry, there was a strong divide between Loyalists, supporters of the Crown, and Patriots, who were opposed to the Coercive Acts and other British policies they believed violated their rights.

King George III, Painting
King George III. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Patriots in the Backcountry also believed the British had failed in a promise to provide them with better government. In South Carolina, the government tended to be controlled by residents from the Lowcountry, the area closer to the coast, and large cities like Charleston. The residents of the Backcountry, the northwest corner of South Carolina, believed the government favored the Lowcountry merchants at their expense.

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April 21 — Charleston Gunpowder Raid

Responding to rumors of British officials instigating uprisings among the slave population and attacks by Native American Indians, the South Carolina Provincial Congress met on April 20 in Charleston. Colonel Charles Pinckney led the meeting. 

Many of the members of Congress were also Sons of Liberty, and although they were unaware the war had started the day before with the Battle of Lexington, they decided to take action to take action before it was too late.

William Henry Drayton was appointed to lead a  “Secret Committee,” responsible for removing weapons and gunpowder from three locations in Charleston. The plans were similar to the Massachusetts Powder Alarm of 1774 and the Virginia Gunpowder Incident. However, in those events, British officials removed military stores from armories. What the South Carolina Patriots planned to do was steal government-owned military stores — a blatant act of treason.

On the night of April 21, three groups of Patriots carried out raids on the three locations. The first group, including Pinckney, Colonel Henry Laurens, Thomas Lynch, Benjamin Huger, and William Henry Drayton, successfully removed the military stores from the armory at the South Carolina State House. The other groups — possibly under the command of Christopher Gadsden — were able to remove the gunpowder from the second location, but the third location was empty when they arrived. However, various accounts indicate the gunpowder from the third location eventually ended up in the hands of the Patriots.

Christopher Gadsden, South Carolina, Founding Father
Christopher Gadsden. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Ninety-Six, Key to the South Carolina Frontier

Ninety-Six was a small village located in the South Carolina backcountry. It was a courthouse village and was the center of legal activity on the western frontier of the colony. It had a courthouse and a jail and was also the location of the storehouse for ammunition and cannons. There was also a fort, called Fort Ninety-Six, which was under the command of Major James Mayson, a Patriot.

Backcountry Loyalists Respond to the Continental Association

In June 1775, the South Carolina Provincial Congress formed a provisional government under the Continental Association, which had been organized by the First Continental Congress. Congress also raised three militia regiments, increasing tension with Backcountry Loyalists.

Feeling threatened by the Patriot Militia, the Backcountry Loyalists raised a force of their own. Colonel Thomas Fletchall, commander of the Upper Saluda Royal Militia, joined forces with other Loyalist leaders, including Joseph Robinson, Moses Kirkland, and Robert Cunningham.

July 12, 1775 — Backcountry Patriots Raid Fort Charlotte

The South Carolina Council of Safety ordered Major Mayson of Fort Ninety-Six, to capture Fort Charlotte. Fort Charlotte was on the Savannah River, west of Charleston, and was used as a storehouse for weapons, ammunition, and cannons. Mayson organized his men, marched to the fort, and captured the supplies without any opposition. 

Joseph Robinson led a group of Loyalist Militia to Fort Ninety-Six and threatened to attack if the military stories were not returned. In order to avoid a fight, Mayson turned the military stores — except for two cannons — over to Robinson, who returned them to Fort Charlotte.

Five days later, with the help of Moses Kirkland and rising support for the Loyalists in the Backcountry, Loyalists took control of Fort Ninety-Six. 

Patriots Send William Henry Drayton to Ninety-Six

On July 23, the Patriots sent William Henry Drayton, Reverend William Tenant, and Reverend Oliver Hart to Ninety-Six to negotiate with the Loyalist leaders and “settle all political disputes between the people.” Drayton had permission to use force, if necessary, and arrest Loyalist leaders.

Drayton had the authority to use force if necessary and arrest the Loyalist leaders. He drafted a plan of attack and sent it to Charleston, under the assumption he would be able to march on Fletchall’s location and simply remove the Loyalists with minimal conflict.

Fletchall and the Loyalists found out about Drayton’s plan and marched on Ninety-Six. When the Loyalist force was four miles from Ninety-Six, Drayton and Fletchall agreed to hold a conference.

September 15 — Patriots Seize Fort Johnson

On September 15, Patriot Militia forces took control of Fort Johnson, overlooking Charleston Harbor. In response, Governor William Campbell dissolved the South Carolina Legislature and fled the city, taking up residence on the HSM Tamar in the harbor. In his absence, the Provincial Congress took control of the city and started strengthening defenses, in anticipation of a British attack.

September 16 — An Uneasy Peace Between Patriots and Loyalists

On September 16, the two sides agreed to a truce, which maintained the peace and avoided the breakout of a civil war in the Backcountry. The Loyalists agreed they would not join any British force that might invade the colony and take up arms against the Patriots. The Patriots agreed to respect the rights and property of the Loyalists that rejected The Association.

The South Carolina Council of Safety Breaks the Peace

Unfortunately, actions taken by the South Carolina Council of Safety broke the peace. First, it ordered the arrest of Robert Cunningham. He was imprisoned and the Council planned to hold him in prison for as long as it felt necessary. Second, it sent a wagonload of ammunition to the Cherokee villages. This fed the fear of the Backcountry Loyalists that the Cherokee would attack them.

The Siege at Savage’s Old Fields at Ninety-Six

Both sides made preparations for open conflict in the Backcountry. Loyalist forces led by Patrick Cunningham and Joseph Robinson captured the supplies that were headed to the Cherokee villages and then marched toward Ninety-Six. The Patriots, led by Colonel Andrew Williamson, responded by fortifying Ninety-Six and taking defensive positions on the plantation of John Savage, at Savage’s Old Fields.

The Loyalists attacked on November 19, and the Patriots were able to hold their positions for two days. On the 21st, both sides agreed to negotiations. The next day, both forces agreed to withdraw and cease hostilities for 20 days while they conferred with their political leaders in Charleston.

Henry Laurens, Illustration
Henry Laurens. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Snow Campaign Begins

However, Loyalist leaders, including Robert Cunningham and Patrick Cunningham, rejected the agreement. At the same time, a Patriot militia force, under the command of Colonel Richard Richardson, was moving into the Backcountry to engage the Loyalist Militia and arrest the leaders. Richardson also rejected the agreement that had been made at Ninety-Six. 

The expedition included Captain Thomas Sumter, who served as Richardsn’s aide-de-camp, and Colonel Francis Marion. Major William “Danger” Thomson and his rangers were also part of the expedition.

On December 2, Richardson issued a proclamation, calling on the inhabitants of the region to deliver Patrick Cunningham, Henry O’Neal, and other Loyalist leaders to his camp. Around the same time, Richardson received reinforcements and learned more were on the way from North Carolina.

As Richarson advanced, he dispersed the Loyalists and arrested leaders. The Loyalists fell back and grew disappointed by the lack of support from British officials, who failed to send reinforcements.

By December 12, Richardson’s force had grown to more than 3,000 men. He had also taken Thomas Fletchall and Richard Pearis as prisoners. Meanwhile, Patrick Cunningham and his Loyalist Militia, who had captured the military supplies intended for the Cherokee, gathered near present-day Simpsonville, South Carolina.

The Battle of Great Cane Brake

On December 21, Richardson sent Major Thomson in pursuit of the Loyalists and the stolen supplies. 

By then, the weather in South Carolina turned unseasonably cold with heavy rains and snow flurries. Cunningham and the Loyalists took shelter in a dense area of bamboo, known as a “Brake of Canes.”

The Patriots surrounded the camp and attacked on the morning of the 22nd, easily routing the Loyalists. Although Cunningham escaped the attack, the Patriots took around 130 prisoners and retook the supplies intended for the Cherokee.

Battle of Great Cane Break, 1775, Historical Marker
The Battle of Great Cane Brake historical marker. Image Source: The Historical Marker Database.

The Snow Campaign Ends

However, the Patriots were unprepared for the cold weather, which turned to heavy snow, slowing the march to Charleston. Richardson’s army, many of whom suffered from frostbite, was dissolved, and most of the Patriots returned home. Richardson criticized the Council of Safety, saying his men were “illy provided, to tents, shoes worn out, and badly clothed.”

Snow Campaign Outcome

In the aftermath of Richardson’s conquest of the Backcountry and Thomson’s victory at Great Cane Break, the Patriots controlled the region. Unfortunately, the weapons that were given to the Cherokee were eventually used against the Patriots when the Indians took up arms in support of the British. Loyalist opposition in the Backcountry was essentially subdued until 1780 when British forces launched the Southern Campaign.

Snow Campaign Significance

The Snow Campaign was important to United States history because it resulted in the reduction of large-scale Loyalist activity in the South Carolina Backcountry, giving the South Carolina Provincial Congress control of the region.

Snow Campaign Frequently Asked Questions

What happened during the Snow Campaign?

The Snow Campaign was a series of events during the American Revolutionary War in South Carolina. The campaign was intended to counter Loyalist activities in the Backcountry and gather support for the Patriot Cause. Patriot forces, led by Colonel Richard Richardson, disrupted Loyalist recruitment, captured key leaders, and increased support for the Patriot Cause. The most significant engagement was the Battle of Great Cane Brake, which ended in a Patriot victory, giving them control of the Backcountry. In the aftermath of the battle, heavy snow fell, which is why it is called the “Snow Campaign.”

What was the purpose of the Snow Campaign?

The purpose of the Snow Campaign was to end Loyalist activities and gather support for the Patriot Cause in the Backcountry.

Who fought in the Snow Campaign?

The Snow Campaign was fought by Patriot forces and Loyalist Militia. The Patriot forces included militia from South Carolina and South Carolina and around 200 North Carolina soldiers from the Continental Army. The Loyalist Militia was led by men like Thomas Fletchall and Patrick Cunningham.

When did the Snow Campaign happen?

The Snow Campaign took place in late 1775, during the latter part of November and the month of December. Some accounts say it ended when Patriot forces returned to Charleston in January 1776.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title The Snow Campaign of 1775 — South Carolina Patriots Take Control of the Backcountry
  • Date November–December, 1775
  • Author
  • Keywords Snow Campaign, South Carolina Backcountry, Siege of Savage’s Old Fields, Battle of Great Cane Brake, Richard Richardson, William Henry Drayton, Charleston Gunpowder Raid, Sons of Liberty, Charles Pinckney, Henry Laurens, Thomas Lynch
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 11, 2024

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