We welcome a guest post today from Daniel J. Tortora, author of Carolina in Crisis: Cherokees, Colonists, and Slaves in the American Southeast, 1756-1763. In his engaging book, Tortora explores how the Anglo-Cherokee War reshaped the political and cultural landscape of the colonial South. He chronicles the series of clashes that erupted from 1758 to 1761 between Cherokees, settlers, and British troops. The conflict, no insignificant sideshow to the French and Indian War, eventually led to the regeneration of a British-Cherokee alliance. Tortora reveals how the war destabilized the South Carolina colony and threatened the white coastal elite, arguing that the political and military success of the Cherokees led colonists to a greater fear of slave resistance and revolt and ultimately nurtured South Carolinians’ rising interest in the movement for independence.
In today’s post, Tortora shares the important but unfamiliar account of the feud between a South Carolina provincial troop commander and a British colonel during the Anglo-Cherokee War.
An obscure letter, one of many manuscripts cited for the first time in Carolina in Crisis, offers a brief clue. In it, Henry Laurens writes that the friends of South Carolina’s provincial commander, Colonel Thomas Middleton, were soon “alledging & industriously insinuating” that “a G”—British Colonel James Grant—“at 12 ¼ Yards distance . . . fired over an M’s Calabash.”
The Grant-Middleton duel took place just five days after South Carolina and the Cherokee Indians had signed the Treaty of Charles Town. Chapter 10 details the making of both the duel and the treaty. Let’s take a closer look at the duel and its significance.
In June of 1761 Grant marched a British and South Carolina army to the Cherokee Country and defeated a massive Cherokee army. Then he burned and destroyed fifteen Indian towns in a matter of weeks. The provincial commander, Middleton, resigned in a huff and returned to his Charles Town residence. Months of accusations and emotion-laden correspondence ensued between Grant and his supporters, and Middleton and his supporters. In Middleton’s corner was the fiery assemblyman Christopher Gadsden, who emerged as a spokesperson for colonial rights and privileges.
The dispute was highly personal.
In a series of lengthy letters, Grant called Middleton a fair-weather soldier, and a poor one at that. Middleton and his supporters called Grant a condescending, petulant, and inept officer. Grant embodied what many colonists had come to resent about British authorities. A Scottish aristocrat, he had a penchant for fine wine, the latest fashions, and expensive haircuts. He shunned democracy and saw others’ advice as “not worth a shilling.” Middleton, on the other hand, symbolized to many colonial elites the heroic colonial public servant slighted by British authorities.
Middleton’s supporters blasted Grant for not destroying more Cherokee towns. Middleton’s spokesperson, Gadsden, called Grant a coward for not pushing further with his campaign of destruction. Grant, he said, could have fed his men chestnuts if that’s what it took to get the job done. Gadsden also blamed Grant for the failings of a military campaign the year earlier. Indeed, the Cherokee offensive of the previous year had been so swift that many South Carolinians responded with calls of genocide. Cherokee attacks had disrupted the economy and created opportunities for slave resistance. Many colonists despised the British for showing mercy.
Tensions flared between British troops and provincial and ranger soldiers. Grant and his supporters charged that the provincials and rangers were poorly trained, undisciplined buffoons. Middleton and his supporters begged to differ. They countered that provincial troops had saved the day in the decisive 1761 showdown with the Cherokee.
In the army camp, a South Carolina ranger captain faced a military tribunal on charges that he fled the battlefield. He was acquitted. The rangers’ quartermaster was court-martialed and convicted for ordering a slave and a trader’s half-Cherokee son to beat up a British officer. And Grant thumbed his nose at the rangers’ commander, William “Danger” Thomson. Grant called Thomson “realy nobody.” (Thomson, not coincidentally, would later lead the patriot defense of Sullivan’s Island in 1776.)
When Grant returned to Charles Town on December 19, 1761, a day after the signing of peace terms, he encountered jeering mobs in the streets. Colonel Middleton emerged from isolation. On a public street, Middleton lunged at Grant and struck him with his cane. It served as the formal challenge to a duel—a showdown months in the making.
So what really happened that morning of December 23? Grant’s supporters claimed that Grant lured Middleton into the duel, then intentionally misfired, sparing the challenger’s life. Middleton’s supporters claimed that Grant (accidentally?) shot and missed a rather large target, and implied that Middleton then held his fire.
Whatever the case, the duel highlighted the tensions laid bare by the Anglo-Cherokee War.
As South Carolina’s early historian Alexander Hewatt put it, colonists began to choose sides—loyalist and patriot. Given high taxes and British restrictions on westward settlement due to the cost of fighting Indians, patriot sympathies only increased. Just days after the signing of the treaty, in late December, a new royal governor, Thomas Boone, arrived with directions from the Crown to clamp down on the growing assertiveness of the colonial Assembly, roused, as Laurens put it, by “the spirit of Gadsden.”
On the way back home with a signed copy of the treaty, lawless frontiersmen added insult to injury for the primary Cherokee diplomat and signatory, Attakullakulla, and his entourage. A “vile” gang of frontiersmen ambushed and robbed the homeward-bound Indians, stealing more than twenty Cherokee horses. Laurens worried that these lawless frontiersmen would again be bothersome to the Cherokees. Indeed, that proved true.
By the end of the year, the Cherokee War was over. But the war’s conclusion, and the ensuing peace that followed it, sowed the seeds for Revolution for Indians, African Americans, and whites, revealing divisions that would only widen among, and between, the three.
The little-known Charles Town duel in which one colonel fired over another colonel’s “Calabash” deserves attention as a key event in early South Carolina’s history.
Daniel J. Tortora is assistant professor of history at Colby College. His book Carolina in Crisis: Cherokees, Colonists, and Slaves in the American Southeast, 1756-1763, is now available.