A colonel in the Continental Army, Isaac Hayne was hanged on August 4, 1781, in Charleston, South Carolina, by British troops for espionage and treason. His public execution inspired fellow Americans to join General Nathanael Greene’s army. Hayne’s unjust death turned into his legacy and contributed to Greene’s successful campaign in South Carolina.

Hayne was a loyal patriot, who fought as a private in the Siege of Charleston in March 1780, when he was captured by the Portrait of Nathanael Greene, by Charles Willson Peale, 1783British General Henry Clinton. After the Continental Army had surrendered Charleston to the British, the captured soldiers were allowed to return home, but as prisoners under parole. This status caused confusion about Hayne’s citizenship: was he a British subject or a prisoner? After a couple of months on parole, when Hayne spent quality time with his family, he was called into Charleston. There he was informed that he must declare himself a British subject by signing an oath of allegiance or else he would be punished with closed confinement. The oath of allegiance stated that, “when called upon, the subject must fight for the British army indubitably.”1

Hayne struggled with the decision of becoming a British subject again. He knew that it could expedite his return to his family, but he did not want to take up arms to support the British crown. To appease Hayne, a British commandant told him that he would not be called upon to serve. This reassured Hayne. He would never betray his country, but he also needed to return home to be with his indisposed family. Hayne gathered up the courage to sign the oath, trusting that he would never have to take up arms against America. In signing the British oath of allegiance, Hayne did not realize that he was also signing his death warrant.

Hayne had two reasons to justify his decision. The first reason was his family. During Hayne’s time fighting for the rebel cause, his family was taken ill with smallpox. In fact, one of his children had already succumbed to the disease and now his wife and other children were sick. Hayne would not allow his wife and children perish without him. Going home was his top priority, and he would have done anything to get there except desert the American cause and bear arms against his country.

Second, James Patterson, the British commandant of Charleston, promised Hayne that if he were called upon to serve in the British army he could decline. This verbal contract between Patterson and Hayne helped influence his decision to sign the oath and return to his sick family.  

In the summer of 1781 he was called to serve the British army in the fight against General Nathanael Greene. Outraged that Patterson’s verbal promise had no standing, Hayne felt cheated that the British violated their word. He decided to reject the British call to arms and return to the Continental Army.

While serving in Colonel William Harden's regiment, Hayne was tasked with a mission to raid and retrieve General Andrew Williamson from British custody. General Williamson had been a part of the Continental Army, but joined the British soon after the failed siege of Charleston in May 1780. In retaliation for his disloyalty, Hayne’s party captured General Williamson on July 7, 1781.  

To recover Williamson, the British Lieutenant-Colonel Nisbet Balfour received intelligence that Hayne’s regiment were camped in the woods of Horseshoe, South Carolina. Balfour’s army ambushed the camp yet were unable to retrieve Williamson, due to Hayne’s men being tipped off that the British were coming. In an attempt to flee, Hayne jumped on to his horse but fell, leaving him to be captured by the British. On July 8, 1781, the British took Hayne to Charleston to be tried and later executed.

While in custody, Hayne’s citizenship status was once again debated. Was he a British subject guilty of treason and espionage, or was he still a prisoner on parole who had violated his agreement? Hayne wrote to Lord Francis Rawdon and Colonel Balfour to request that if he were tried as a British subject that he receive a legal trial. However, if he were tried as an American, he should have the freedom of his previous parole. Hayne was initially told by Charleston Town-Major Charles Fraser that a council of general officers would put him on trial the next day, yet a couple hours later, Hayne learned that there would be no council and a decision had already been made.2

Hayne was never allowed a trial. On July 29, 1781, he received a response from the Town-Major Fraser informing him that his sentence would be execution and there was no way to change it. On August 4, 1781, Isaac Hayne would die at the age of 36 for espionage and treason against the British crown. The oath of allegiance he signed had ultimately led to his hanging. Yet, Hayne did not die for nothing. Word of his unjust death quickly spread through Charleston and inspired many men to join the American cause.

Greene reacted to Hayne’s death by pledging to retaliate against something so cruel. In addition to gathering support from his officers, Greene wrote about Hayne’s execution to George Washington and requested approval to retaliate against the British. Washington responded that Congress was considering the retaliation: “I really know not what to say on the subject of retaliation. Congress have it under Consideration, and we must await their determinations. Of this I am convinced that of all Laws it is the most difficult to execute, where you have not the transgressor himself in your possession, Humanity will ever interfere and plead strongly against the sacrifice of an innocent person for the guilt of another.”3  Greene never directly retaliated for Hayne’s death, but the execution remained a rallying cry for recruits who joined Greene’s army in the High Hills of the Santee in South Carolina. Greene had been struggling to turn his militiamen into foot soldiers, but with the increase of about 2,000 men after Hayne’s execution, Greene was ready to attack the British in the Battle of Eutaw Springs in September 1781. For many, Isaac Hayne was the southern Nathan Hale, a symbol of British cruelty and the spark that was needed to help take back the South.

 

Diana Vanderbei

George Washington University

 

Notes:

1. Henry Lee and Robert E. Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department (New York, NY: University Publishing Company, 1869), 451.

2. Isaac Hayne to Lord Rawdon and Colonel Balfour, August 1781, in Lee and Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, 453-55.

3. Nathanael Greene to George Washington, November 21, 1781, in The Papers of Nathanael Greene. Vol. 9. July - December 1781 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 1997), 606.

Bibliography:

Bowman, Larry G. Captive Americans: Prisoners During the American Revolution. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976.        

Gordon, John W. South Carolina and the American Revolution: A Battlefield History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.

Lee, Henry, and Robert E. Lee. Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department. New York, NY: University Publishing Company, 1869.

Wilson, David K. The Southern Strategy: Britain's Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia, 1775-1780. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.

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