Sunday, October 3, 2021

ARP220 Assault on Charleston

We return to the southern theater that we last left in Episode 213.  In that episode, I discussed the Battle of Brier Creek, which took place in March 1779.  It was a British victory, but failed to leave the British in control of the Georgia backcountry.  The Continentals took control of Augusta, and kept the British hemmed in around Savannah.

Augustine Prévost

After the capture of Savannah in late 1778, Colonel Archibald Campbell received appointment as military governor of the colony, even while General Augustine Prévost soon took command of the military forces at Savannah.  Campbell then returned to London, leaving his Lieutenant Governor, and General Prévost’s brother, Colonel Mark Prévost as the acting governor of the colony of Georgia.

Campbell returned to Britain a hero and received a promotion to major general.  He also got married and soon received an appointment as Governor of Jamaica.

Back in Georgia, the situation began to become dire.  The British strategy in Georgia had been to take the colony with a relatively small force of a few thousand regulars, then use that foothold to build an army of loyalists from the Georgia and Carolina backcountry and to use that army to invade South Carolina.  British strategists also hoped that Georgia would provide a source of food for armies fighting on islands in the West Indies. 

By capturing only a small area around Savannah, those plans never came to fruition.  There were potential loyalists living in the backcountry who might be persuaded to join an army.  But after the British abandoned Augusta, many of these men had no faith that the British army could hold territory, or that they would not cut and run if the Continentals gave them too much of a fight.  These men knew the consequences of joining up with the British if the British did not remain in control.  They would be branded traitors, have their property confiscated, become exiles, or even be executed.  As a result, the number of local volunteers was minimal.  Most men in the area who had not joined with the patriots, simply kept their heads down and tried to remain out of the contest until they had more confidence on which side was going to win.

Lincoln Advances into Georgia

Following the Battle of Brier Creek, the British garrison of nearly 4000 soldiers remained in and around Savannah, with a couple of outposts within a day’s march of the city.  The Americans concentrated the bulk of their forces at Purrysburg, a small town on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River, about 20 miles upriver from British-occupied Savannah.

Benjamin Lincoln

After Brier Creek, the Continentals and militia under General Benjamin Lincoln’s command totaled less than 2000, about half of what the British had. Lincoln had expected militia from the southern states to rally to his support, especially now that they were being threatened with the clear and present danger of a British offensive from Savannah.  The patriot militia from Georgia and the Carolinas turned out in disappointingly small numbers.  

In April, a frustrated Lincoln wrote to the Continental Congress, requesting to be relieved of his command. He complained that he did not have sufficient forces to go on the offensive, and that his New England Constitution was not doing well in the southern climate.  He had come down with a fever, and was still suffering pain from the wounds he received at Saratoga more than a year earlier.  Despite his request, General Lincoln remained in command.

Even with that diminished force, the Continental position at Purrysburg kept the British bottled up.  They could not send foraging or recruiting parties into the backcountry without the risk of being attacked and captured.  If they sent out a force large enough to fight off a major attack, they would be forced to leave the garrison at Savannah so depleted that they could not defend themselves against an all-out attack there.

The inability to recruit meant that the British did not have the manpower to launch a new offensive.  The inability to forage meant that they were still reliant on food and supplies shipped to them from elsewhere.  This frustrated plans in London, where they hoped British-controlled Georgia would be a net exporter of food by this time, not requiring imports of food.  After an American privateer captured a supply ship bound for Savannah, the garrison had to go on short rations and was in danger of potentially starving.

The stand off seemed to be favoring the Americans.  At the same time, Lincoln once again called on the governors of North and South Carolina to send reinforcements.  By late April, the Continentals were in better shape.  South Carolina militia general Andrew Williamson had reoccupied Augusta and had fought and dispersed a group of Cherokee and Creek warriors who were supporting the British.

William Moultrie

More militia joined Lincoln in Purrysburg. It’s hard to find a good source with reliable numbers, but it appears that the combined force of Continentals and militia at Purrysburg were well more than the nearly 4000 British soldiers at Savannah.  With those reinforcements, General Lincoln felt pressure to go on the offensive.  He still did not want to attack Savannah directly.  The British there had artillery, and defensive fortifications that would make a direct assault unlikely to succeed.  

Instead, after holding a council of war on April 19, Lincoln opted to take the bulk of his force to Augusta.  This would ensure the British could not receive aid from the Georgia backcountry, and might convince locals that the Americans were in control of most of the state.  The patriot legislature of Georgia planned to convene in Augusta at the beginning of May.  Deploying a large military force would be a show of strength against any British attack and would establish patriot control of most of Georgia.  

By moving in force into upper Georgia, Lincoln left behind only a few hundred soldiers in Purrysburg, mostly to keep any eye on the river fords.  General William Moultrie stayed behind to maintain the command at Purrysburg while Lincoln took the main army into Georgia, with hopes of perhaps even pushing the British further back into Savannah..

British Invade South Carolina         

In Savannah, British General Prévost observed the deployment.  He had no intention of trying to retake Augusta.  His army had abandoned that town a couple of months prior because it put at risk any outpost in that area with the larger Continental Army at Purrysburg.  The Purrysburg location made good tactical sense because the Americans would move into Georgia easily if the British tried to push out of Savannah, but they could also engage any British forces that tried to move into South Carolina.

After the Americans moved the bulk of their force up around Augusta, the British saw an opportunity to move into South Carolina.  General Prévost still had not received any reinforcements since he arrived at Savannah months earlier.  But he had several thousand regulars at his command.  He could use those forces to challenge the Americans.  Sure, the Americans had more numbers, but they were mostly militia whom the British believed would not usually stand in battle.

On April 30, Prévost deployed a force of about 2000 regulars across the river into South Carolina, hoping to challenge the force at Purrysburg, and also to do some foraging, hopefully gathering cattle and grain from the South Carolina countryside, to feed his garrison.  Prévost figured his move would probably force Lincoln to return from Augusta back to Purrysburg.  The British might get another opportunity to attack or capture some Americans, as they had a Brier Creek, or they would at least force the bulk of the American Army out of Georgia and back into a position where they could defend South Carolina.

For the British, this was a risky move.  The British were sending more than half of their soldiers out of Savannah at the time when the Americans looked like they were planning an offensive against Savannah by marching down from Augusta.  Prévost was gambling that the Americans would rush back into South Carolina and give up their offensive in Georgia.

In Purrysburg, General Moultrie saw he would be quickly overwhelmed and called on General Lincoln to send reinforcements quickly.  Lincoln believed the British action was a feint and only sent about 300 men back to assist Moultrie.  There was some skirmishing, but the British were slow in advancing because heavy rains had swollen the river, making it difficult for the British to get their artillery and horses across.  Moultrie used that time to abandon Purrysburg and to try to get into a position between the British Army and Charleston.

Lincoln, however, continued to see the British action as a feint to force him to retreat from Georgia.  He kept his Continentals around Augusta and called on the South Carolina militia to turn out and defend their state.  South Carolina Militia General Stephen Bull sent word to Moultrie that, soon, he would be arriving with 600 men.  

That, however, did not happen.  South Carolina farmers were panicked at the idea of the British marching through their farms.  To add to that panic was the fact that about 100 Creek and Cherokee warriors were with the British.  Word got out that they were ravaging farms, killing women and children.  South Carolina farmers refused to turn out for the militia call, and instead worked to secure their farms or move their families to safety.

John Laurens

One officer who did turn out to defend the state was Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens of Charleston.  Laurens had recently returned to South Carolina after serving as George Washington’s aide-de-camp.  Although still a Continental officer, he had left active duty to take a seat in the South Carolina legislature.  When he received word that the British had moved into South Carolina, he rode out to offer his services to General Moultrie.  

Laurens received orders to guard one of the river fords that the British would need to reach Charleston.  Moultrie was trying to organize a defense at the Tullifiny River.  He had left a guard of about 100 militia at the Coosawhatchie River, where the British would arrive first. On May 3, he deployed Laurens with another 250 men to reinforce the defense of the ford on the Tullifiny.  

Laurens, decided the best defense was a good offense.  He took the combined force of 350 men, crossed the river, and advanced to attack the approaching British.  The British soldiers saw the American approach and immediately deployed on the high ground, taking positions in several houses on the tops of hills.  Despite the British having the better position, Laurens led his men into a charge, braving artillery and musket fire in an attempt to dislodge the British.  The Americans began to take casualties, including Colonel Laurens who had a hose shot out from under him and also took a bullet in the arm. Laurens left the field to receive medical attention, leaving orders to Captain Thomas Shubrick to continue the engagement and then pull back.

Shubrick saw no benefit of remaining engaged against an enemy that had the better position and who was also likely to receive reinforcements soon.  As soon as Laurens left, Shubrick ordered an immediate retreat.  His actions turned out to be the right move.  His withdrawal prevented the British from circling around behind the Americans and cutting off their retreat.

Laurens, aware of the move, rode back to the main lines at Tullifiny and reported that his men were in retreat.  In response, General Moultrie abandoned his attempts to set up a defense at the Tullifiny River.  He burned the bridge and withdrew his army back toward Charleston.

Receiving little opposition, the British simply stepped up their foraging and began marching toward Charleston.  Laurens’ attack near the Coosawhatchie River was the only significant defense they encountered.  They kept on the heels of the retreating Americans, who had to march through the night several times to keep ahead of the British.  General Prévost was moving as fast as he could toward Charleston.

Battle for Charleston

By May 9, Moultrie’s retreating army had reached Charleston.  Along the way much of the militia army that had turned out, deserted the army.  The men sought to return to their plantations and protect their families rather than remain with the army.  Moultrie commanded a force of 600, which was still mostly inexperienced militia.  There were still a few other armies that might assist. Governor John Rutledge was assembling another militia army at Orangeburg.  Moultrie also still hoped that General Lincoln would come to his assistance.  General Casimir Pulaski also arrived in town with his legion, offering his services.  Moultrie raised a few hundred men in Charleston, but hoped to have a few days to arrange his defenses before the British arrived.

Charleston, SC
The British, however, were not just going to sit around.  On May 10, the day after Moultrie arrived in Charleston, the British captured a key ferry just a few miles from town.  On May 11, the British had crossed and were prepared to assault Charleston.  Moultrie deployed his militia to meet the invaders.

The reality though, was that the British had never intended to capture Charleston.  This had been a foraging raid, primarily designed to collect some food and to force General Lincoln’s Continentals to abandon Georgia and protect South Carolina.  When Lincoln refused to take the bait, they had pretty much an open path to Charleston.  But having arrived at the city with 2000 men, General Prévost did not have the artillery and entrenching tools to mount a proper assault.  He was more than 100 miles from his home base at Savannah, and still had the risk that General Lincoln might march up behind him with several thousand soldiers and cut him off from his base.

The British engaged with Pulaski’s legion just outside of Charleston.  An encounter with British dragoons, backed up by light infantry and a few companies of loyalist volunteers from New York resulted in most of the infantry in Pulaski’s legion being slaughtered on the field. The two sides met on a horse racing field just outside of town.  Colonel Chevalier de Rowats, a Prussian officer in command of Pulaski’s infantry, advanced against the British, only to be cut down and killed.  Most of his men were also slaughtered by saber-wielding dragoons.  Pulaski and his cavalry only escaped by galloping off the field.  Their pursuers only turned back after they reached the American artillery at the city gates.

Over the next few days, the American defenses grew.  Governor Rutledge’s militia army arrived from Orangeburg.  Colonel Harris arrived with a contingent of Continental light infantry. General Bull finally arrived with a reduced militia force of a few hundred.  In total, the Americans had assembled a force of about 3000 defenders.

Moultrie, however, still suffered an inability to create a unified command. Governor Rutledge insisted on giving his own orders to the militia.  The state’s privy council also tried to issue its own orders to militia.  The result was that coordination of troops was nearly impossible.  

On the night of May 11, Rutledge ordered Major Benjamin Huger, the brother of General Isaac Huger, to lead a company to fill in a hole in the American defenses.  Nervous American troops nearby heard the movement in the dark and opened fire.  Huger and twelve of his men were killed in the friendly fire incident.

After that, Moultrie confronted Rutledge about the deaths and forced them to agree to give him full command over all of the military forces around Charleston.  In exchange, Moultrie agreed to leave civil matters such as parleys or discussions of surrender to the civil authorities.

Talk of Surrender

The next day, May 12, Governor Rutledge came to General Moultrie to say he wanted to parley with the British to discuss the terms of surrender.  Having agreed leaving that authority with the governor the previous evening, Moultrie had to agree to send a messenger to ask for terms.

The messenger delivered the request to Colonel Mark Prévost, the general’s brother and the commander of the British advance force.  Prévost sensed the Americans were ready to fold and told them they could surrender unconditionally within the next four hours or he would attack.

When the Americans received the British response, they debated their options.  The military leaders, General Moultrie, General Pulaski, and Colonel Laurens wanted to fight.  They estimated the British had about 4000 soldiers and the Americans had over 3000 defenders.  Given the advantages of their entrenched defenses, they believed they could hold off any attack until Lincoln’s relief force arrived.  

Governor Rutledge and the privy council disagreed.  They believe the British had between 7000 and 8000 men against a defensive force of around 2500.  If surrender would protect the city and its property, then it was the best course of action.

In reality, the British had less than 1000 soldiers prepared to attack, with another 1200 in reserve back at the ferry.  The British knew they could not take the city by force, but were trying to bluff the Americans into surrender.

Gov. John Rutledge
Governor Rutledge and the majority of his Privy Council opted to propose a neutrality option.  They would agree that South Carolina would become neutral in the war for independence, waiting to see whether the Americans won the war or not.  They would essentially drop out of the war and leave the fighting between the British and the other states to the north.  In exchange, the British would call off their siege of Charleston.

The offer was, to say the least, controversial.  The military leaders thought it was ridiculous to give up fighting for independence in exchange for ending an attack that they could probably defend against anyway.  A minority of the Privy Council and the legislature also opposed the idea.  Governor Rutledge, however, was unswayed and demanded General Moultrie deliver the offer.  Moultrie, while opposed, felt obliged to obey the orders of the civilian government.  He asked Colonel Laurens to deliver the message.  Laurens refused.  Eventually someone carried the message to the British.

They received Colonel Prévost’s response the following morning.  He was not authorized to make political deals, but that he would accept the surrender of the army as prisoners of war.  Prévost knew that he could not capture the city militarily, but he decided to push his bluff to see if he could force a surrender.   It almost worked. Gov. Rutledge was still prepared to surrender.

General Moultrie, however, was not ready to turn over his army and make his men prisoners of war without a fight.  Moultrie informed Prévost that he rejected the offer to surrender and prepared for the assault.  For the rest of the day, May 12, the Americans prepared for the attack.  The tension grew even worse after four men caught deserting their posts were ordered hanged on the city gates.  Their bodies were left hanging there all day as a warning to others.

The following morning, May 13, the Americans awoke to find themselves facing an empty field.  Colonel Prévost, with his bluff called, knew he had no further options.  He also received word that General Lincoln was on his way with a relief force.  Prévost had never intended to take Charleston when he started the offensive, and had no intention of pushing his luck.  The British withdrew back toward Savannah, with the forage they needed, and called it a success.


Because there never was a full battle, casualties for the campaign were rather light, mostly a few dozen on the American side.  As later events would prove, this was only the opening salvo in the British effort to take Charleston.

Next Week: British raids in the Chesapeake threaten Virginia.

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Next  Episode 221 Collier-Mathew Raid

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Further Reading


Charleston Raid of Prévost

Searcy, Martha Condray. “1779: The First Year of the British Occupation of Georgia.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 2, 1983, pp. 168–188. JSTOR,

Sterner, Eric “John Rutledge of South Carolina, 1779” Journal of the American Revolution, March 25, 2021,

Haw, James. “A Broken Compact: Insecurity, Union, and the Proposed Surrender of Charleston, 1779.” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 96, no. 1, 1995, pp. 30–53. JSTOR,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Fortescue, J.W. A History Of The British Army, London: Macmillan And Co, Ltd, 1911. 

Jones, Charles C. The History of Georgia Vol. 2, Boston: Houghton & Mifflin Co. 1883:

McCall, Hugh The History of Georgia, containing brief sketches of the most remarkable events up to the present day, (1784), Atlanta: A.H. Caldwell, 1909 reprint.

Peck, John Mason Lives of Daniel Boone and Benjamin Lincoln, Boston: C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1847. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Cashin, Edward The King's Ranger: Thomas Brown and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier, New York: Fordham University Press, 1999. 

Ferling, John Winning Independence, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.

Hall, Leslie, Land and Allegiance in Revolutionary Georgia, Univ. of Ga Press, 2001.  

Hilborn, Nat Battleground of Freedom: South Carolina in the Revolution, Sandlapper Press, 1970. 

Martin, Scott Savannah 1779: The British Turn South, Osprey Publishing, 2017. 

Mattern, David B. Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1998: 

Piecuch, Jim Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775-1782, Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2008. 

Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000. 

Wilson, David K. The Southern Strategy: Britain’s Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia 1775-1780, Univ. of S.C. Press, 2005. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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