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Historical Eye of the Tiger: Clemson v. Syracuse

Orange collides with purple on the gridiron thanks to the military’s service and sacrifice for the red, white, and blue

NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the off-the-field vitriol that has surrounded the annual ACC Atlantic Division gridiron match between the Clemson Tigers and Syracuse Orange since 2013, the on-the-field results of this “rivalry” have been all-out routs in the Tigers’ favor. This year’s battle falls on Military Appreciation Day in Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, and as the head man himself asserted in his weekly presser, at Clemson, military service and appreciation runs deep. But before we commence firing upon our hated foes from “up there,” we must also recognize the military heritage they bring into Death Valley this weekend, especially their efforts since the Second World War to improve the lives and prospects of military servicemen and returning veterans through their Institute for Veterans and Military Families. Football fisticuffs aside, all of us this weekend, whether decked out with pride in all-purple or sporting the orange and blue, can agree that none of it would be possible without the service and sacrifices of so many soldiers throughout the history of our nation. This weekend we can muster on and around the field of play because they mustered into service to something greater than themselves, a noble sacrifice for which we should all be eternally grateful.

The Clemson College “Senior Platoon” at Yankee Stadium in New York City, 1948

As the Historical Eye of the Tiger has documented over the past two seasons (2014 & 2015), the gridiron history between Clemson and Syracuse is short, and though it was initially bitter for the Tiger faithful (1996 Gator Bowl 41-0 debacle to Donovan McNabb, and Marvin Harrison) it has since ripened into much sweeter fare. Clemson now holds a 3-1 lead in the all-time series that dates to that 1996 bowl game in soggy Jacksonville, Florida. But since the ‘Cuse became ACC members in 2013, Clemson has dominated, winning each of the three matchups by double digits, with an average score of 34-16.

Wayne Gallman slashed through the Orange defense en route to a thrilling 37-27 victory in the Carrier Dome during the 2015 season

But in honor of Military Appreciation Day, the Historical Eye of the Tiger will direct its gaze to our nation’s founding era, when American patriots from all walks of life across a vast expanse of territory stretching from the Canadian border to the Georgia lowcountry banded together to resist what they believed to be British Imperial oppression to declare their independence and secure it in the Revolutionary War. Clemson University and Syracuse University each lie within two hours of what were arguably the most significant military engagements of the war for American independence: the Battle of Saratoga (1777) in New York and the Battles of King’s Mountain (1780) and Cowpens (1781) in the South Carolina backcountry. Though neither of these institutions existed when these great battles unfolded, both schools harken back to these revolutionary beginnings with their continued support of and gratitude for the American military that in many ways made their very founding possible a century later (Clemson 1889, Syracuse 1870).

The “Shots Heard Round the World” were fired at the Battles of Lexington & Concord, MA on April 19, 1775, beginning the American Revolutionary War

Even after “Minutemen” fired the “shots heard ‘round the world” at Lexington & Concord, Massachusetts in April of 1775, many throughout the American colonies continued to balk at the idea of independence from Great Britain. For many of these loyalists, fear of continued British “oppression” paled in comparison to the fear of anarchy that might follow an American independence movement. Proof of this prevailing sentiment, despite the opening salvo of what would eventually become the American Revolution, came from the political body first convened in 1774 and reconvened in 1775 to coordinate those disparate colonies in a coherent resistance to British authority, the Continental Congress. The Second Continental Congress, comprised of representatives from each of the thirteen colonies, produced the “Olive Branch Petition” in which they expressed their grievances with, but reasserted their loyalty to, the British Empire, so long as Parliament and the Crown agreed to address these grievances. They also began preparing for war, however, and organized the Continental Army, appointing Virginian George Washington as its commanding general. After the perceived impudence of his American subjects at Lexington and Concord, King George III rejected the peace petition outright, prompting the Congress to issue the Declaration of Independence and setting the stage for the clash that would be known as the American Revolutionary War.

The Second Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence in July 1776

The prospects for American victory in this conflict were slim-to-none on paper, as the colonies had far more dividing them than uniting them, economically, politically, socially, and culturally. And they faced the daunting prospect of building an army and navy from scratch to combat the most powerful military force on earth at that time in the British Army and Navy. Due to this extreme disparity, the Second Continental Congress and General George Washington devised a strategy based on “Fabian” tactics, which they hoped would negate the British advantages in manpower, resources, and training. American leaders knew that their only chance for ultimate success was to outlast the British public and political will to continue the conflict. And this was predicated on maintaining their army in the field by avoiding annihilation at the hands of the much stronger British forces. In essence, Washington and Congress agreed that they would “trade space for time,” hoping to avoid full-scale battles with the British through constant maneuver, attacking only when opportunities to concentrate forces and strike a decisive blow at detached fragments of larger British forces presented themselves.

General George Washington, Commander of the U.S. Continental Army during the American Revolution

This strategy worked well in the early years of the war, which took place predominantly in the Northern and Middle colonies of Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. After forcing British forces to evacuate Boston following the Battle of Bunker Hill in June of 1776, Washington transferred his army from Boston to New York City. British General William Howe, having evacuated Boston for Nova Scotia in order to reform his army and reformulate his plan of attack, made Washington’s army in New York City his primary objective, and a series of military campaigns in New York and New Jersey during the summer and fall of 1776 eventually resulted in the British occupation of the city before year’s end.

General William Howe, initial commander of all British forces during the early years (1776-1777) of the American Revolution.

Though Washington succeeded in trading space for time during these campaigns, for the soldiers in the field, their families and the wider colonial public reading about their exploits on the homefront, these “Fabian” tactics looked and felt an awful lot like losing, so morale in the army and among the general public plummeted. Small but symbolically crucial American victories at Trenton (Dec. 26, 1776) and Princeton (Jan. 3, 1777) New Jersey stemmed the tide of perceived defeats, but did little to alter the overarching course of the conflict, as the British maintained control of New York City and the upper hand. But frustrations on the part of British Gen. Howe and the British high command at their inability to use their military advantages to crush Washington’s army and the American rebellion mounted.

Washington “Cross the Delaware” River with his American Continentals for a surprise attack against British-allied Hessian forces garrisoned at Trenton, NJ in December 1776

These frustrations produced a more aggressive approach, designed to accomplish both the destruction of Washington’s Continental Army and the end of the rebellion in one fell swoop. While Howe left a British force under Gen. Henry Clinton to defend New York City, he intended move the bulk of his army north to combine with another British army under Gen. John Burgoyne heading south from Canada. These combined movements by two major British armies, either of which alone outnumbered Washington’s force, would presumably force Washington to divide his army and meet the British in open battle, wherein Howe believed his superior forces would prevail. The only flaw in the plan, as Howe conceived it, ultimately proved its undoing, however. In moving his army northward out of New York, Howe left that city more vulnerable to attack by Washington’s army to the south. To counter this, he revised his original plan, and moved his army south to capture Philadelphia, the American capital, rather than combining with Burgoyne. This left Burgoyne’s army isolated in hostile territory with its supply lines severely strained and increasingly threatened, and presented Washington with an opportunity to combine his force and attack a regular British force in isolation. Such a consolidation demanded sacrificing the American capital to Howe’s army, but the resulting American victory over Burgoyne’s army at the month-long campaign (mid-September to mid-October 1777) collectively dubbed the Battle of Saratoga sorely tested but ultimately confirmed the effectiveness of the American strategy.

British General John Burgoyne surrenders his army to American General Horatio Gates after the pivotal Battle of Saratoga, NY, October 1777

This momentous American triumph had far-reaching consequences for the course and eventual outcome of the war. France, who had been observing the ongoing American Revolution against their British rivals with keen interest, saw Saratoga as proof that American forces could prevail, and on the strength of this proof promised military aid and granted political recognition to the fledgling American nation and its military effort to secure independence. Meanwhile, the British made a change in command, replacing Gen. William Howe with Generals Henry Clinton and Lord Charles Cornwallis, who promptly revised the British military strategy, shifting the focus of their operations to the American southern colonies.

British General Henry Clinton, who assumed overall command of British forces from William Howe after the loss at Saratoga in 1777.

This British “Southern Strategy” initially worked to perfection, as British forces captured Savannah and Augusta, Georgia in quick succession in 1778, then used them as bases of operations for expeditions into the Carolinas, where they continued to dominate on the battlefield, laying siege to and eventually capturing Charleston, then proceeding inland to annihilate a combined American Continental and militia force at the Battle of Camden, South Carolina in 1780. At this stage, Gen. Clinton returned north to confront Washington’s army, leaving the final execution of the Southern Strategy to Gen. Cornwallis, who sought to dispatch his forces throughout the Carolina backcountry in order to draw loyalist and fugitive slave support for the crown while simultaneously undermining the American war effort and quelling any lingering hopes for a successful rebellion in the region. These heavy-handed efforts of the British in the Carolinas, however, had the opposite effect, driving many erstwhile indifferent Carolinians to take up arms against the British in support of the Patriot cause.

General Lord Charles Cornwallis, who shared overall command of British forces with General Henry Clinton after the latter assumed command from General William Howe following the British defeat at Saratoga in the fall of 1777

Initially this resistance took the form of guerrilla partisan warfare, and the Carolinas erupted into what amounted to a civil war that divided families, neighbors, and communities along patriot and loyalist lines. This guerrilla war produced some of the most notorious American military leaders, including Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion in the Lowcountry, Thomas “The Gamecock” Sumter in the Midlands, Andrew “The Wizard Owl” Pickens in the Upstate, and Elijah Clarke across the Savannah in Georgia. Cornwallis grew increasingly frustrated with his armies’ inability to effectively combat these partisan guerrillas and make progress toward crushing the American rebellion from the bottom up, and he redoubled his efforts, which only intensified the growing resentment of British authority in the region.

Decisive American victory at King’s Mountain, SC, December 1780

The tide began to turn irrevocably toward the American forces with two pivotal battles in the South Carolina backcountry in late 1780 and early 1781 at King’s Mountain and Cowpens, South Carolina. The first saw a British loyalist force surrounded and eventually forced to surrender to American militia forces consolidated from throughout the region, including the famed “Overmountain Men” who trekked across the Appalachians to join in the fray. The second battle at Cowpens in many ways provided the blueprint for American military success against Cornwallis and his British forces throughout the subsequent Carolina Campaign. Gen. Daniel Morgan commanded a force of American Continentals dispatched south by Washington to resist Cornwallis’s advance northward, and after a series of maneuvers under intense pursuit by British forces under infamous British Colonel Banastre Tarleton and his force of dragoons, turned to fight on ground he deemed most advantageous for an effective defense at Cowpens. The resulting battle saw Morgan deploy his militia forces on the front line, taking advantage of British disrespect for and over-aggressiveness toward militia to “double-envelop” Tarleton’s dragoons with a combined counter-attack of regular Continentals and a cavalry force commanded by Gen. William Washington.

Crucial American “blueprint for victory” at Cowpens, SC, January 1781

The resulting British defeat convinced Cornwallis of the futility of continuing the struggle in South Carolina, and he put his army on the move north, pursuing American forces that continued to harass his advance throughout. Washington, encouraged by the success at Cowpens, dispatched General Nathaniel Greene to assume overall command of American forces in the South, and on March 15th, 1781 Greene re-deployed Morgan’s tactics from Cowpens at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina, inflicting irreparable casualties upon Cornwallis’s beleaguered army and forcing him to retreat to Yorktown, Virginia, where he intended to recuperate and resupply.

Battle at Guilford Courthouse, NC, March 1781, in which the British incurred irreparable casualties to achieve a strategically meaningless tactical victory over American Continental forces under General Nathaniel Greene, after which General Cornwallis was forced to retreat into Virginia to recover.

But the arrival of French forces enabled Washington to surround Cornwallis’s force at Yorktown, which was then bottled up when French naval forces thwarted British naval attempts to resupply Cornwallis. The resulting siege and eventual surrender of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown to the combined American and French forces under General George Washington and General Rochambeau in October 1781 effectively ended the military conflict in the American Revolution. The Treaty of Paris two years later formally finalized British defeat and American victory and officially recognized American independence and nationhood.

British General Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army (by proxy) to American General George Washington and French General Rochambeau (also by proxy) after the siege of Yorktown, VA, effectively ending the Revolutionary War

Can the 2016 Syracuse Orangemen succeed in their own southern strategy to knock off the #2 Clemson Tigers, or will the Tigers rally under a purple banner to crush the Orange and continue their dominance in the series, as well as their march toward greater glories? Recent history shows Dino Babers and his Orangemen will have a difficult time ousting Dabo Swinney’s Tigers from the ranks of the unbeaten, but as we all converge on Memorial Stadium to witness the massacre, let us reflect upon the military history that secured the very liberty and freedom we enjoy today, salute the military heroes past and present whose service to and sacrifice for the stars and stripes has and continues to promote and protect those ideals that bind us together, “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Clemson WR Sean Mac Lain on Military Appreciation Day vs. Wake Forest 2015



John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, (Wiley, 1997)

Walter B. Edgar, Partisans & Redcoats: The Southern Conflict that Turned the Tide of the American Revolution, (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2001)

John Ferling, Almost A Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

John W. Gordon, South Carolina and the American Revolution: A Battlefield History, (University of South Carolina Press, 2002)

Richard Hoffman, ed. An Uncivil War: The Southern Backcountry during the American Revolution, (UVA Press, 1985)

Henry Lumpkin, From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South, (University of South Carolina Press, 1981)

John Luzader, Saratoga: A Military History of the Decisive Campaign of the American Revolution, (Savas Beatie, 2010)

Melissa Walker, The Battles of Kings Mountain and Cowpens: The American Revolution in the Southern Backcountry, (Routledge, 2012)

Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution, Vols. 1&2 (Konecky & Konecky, 2006)