Sunday, May 29, 2022

ARP247 Siege of Charleston

It’s been a while since we've discussed the war in the south. We last left them in Episode 234 when a combined French and American Force attempted to recapture Savannah Georgia from the British Outpost there. The British managed to hold out and the French sailed for New England. Continental General Benjamin Lincoln was stuck with a relatively small Southern Army, with which he hoped to protect South Carolina and hopefully find a way to recapture Georgia for the Americans. 

Charlestown Defenses

Lincoln, of course, was well aware that the British had their eyes on Charleston South Carolina. They had already attempted a half-hearted attack on the city and almost succeeded in taking it. A big part of Lincoln's time was spent building and reinforcing the defenses in and around Charleston, which was seen as the key to holding the state of South Carolina. 

Sullivan's Island, Charleston Harbor
Lincoln had never wanted the southern command, and had already tried to resign several times. He faced the same frustrations that his predecessors in commanding the southern Continental Army had already faced. The southern governors refused to support the Continental Army, to provide them with the necessary supplies, or to give them command authority over the state militia. The southern colonies also categorically refused to raise much-needed recruits from the enslaved population, which in South Carolina made up A majority of the population. Not only that, many white South Carolinians could not afford to leave their farms for fear that their slaves escape to the British, or perhaps even rise up in rebellion on their own.

General Lincoln hoped that Washington would send more continental soldiers from the north.  He wrote to Washington that “We remain unsupported by troops, unsupplied wt. many essential articles, and uncovered wt. works—and what adds to the unhappiness, is the little prospect that our affairs will speedily be in a better channel.”  Washington, however, was watching his own northern army dwindle in the winter at Morristown, and receiving nothing but unfulfilled promises of new recruits.

Congress did approve some additional support for Charleston after the failed attack on Savannah.  It sent three frigates to help supplement harbor defenses, and a couple of thousand soldiers from Virginia and North Carolina.  But with the northern army strapped for men as well, many of the other states resented having to send assistance to South Carolina.  The state had consistently refused to provide soldiers to northern states in their times of distress, and refused to turn out its people in significant numbers for its own defense.  It was only the fact that the loss of South Carolina would also prevent any hope of retaking Georgia, would probably mean the loss of North Carolina, and would put Virginia at great risk, that convinced those states to the north that they needed to assist South Carolina, even if the people of that state did not seem willing to make make much sacrifice to defend themselves

Massachusetts delegate James Lovell, captured the sentiment of many in Congress, when he wrote: 

The State of Sth. Cara, have thought we neglected them, we know they neglected themselves. They will not draught to fill up their Battalions, they will not raise black Regiments, they will not put their militia when in Camp under continental Rules. However, [he noted with frustration]we must exert ourselves for them in every Way.

To add to Lincoln’s woes, a smallpox epidemic broke out in Charleston. Slave owners refused to allow their valuable property to work on defenses within the city for fear that they might catch the disease and die, thus depriving their masters of valuable property.  

Benjamin Lincoln

Lincoln corresponded with the Spanish governor in Cuba over the idea of raiding the British colonial capital at St Augustine in Florida, in hopes of forcing the British to focus on the defensive rather than new offensive goals. Those negotiations, however, came to nothing. This was, in part, because the Americans had no sufficient forces to send to St. Augustine, nor ships to send them on. The Spanish were also still under orders not to work directly with the Americans.  

Lincoln's hope of defending Charleston was that the size of the British Garrison at Savannah was nowhere near large enough to capture Charleston. The real fear for the Americans was that the British would send a larger force from elsewhere, either to reinforce the Garrison at Savannah, or to launch a larger attack against Charleston from another location.

British Plan of Attack

That fear was very well founded. As I discussed back in Episode 240, the British were very much considering a larger all out assault on South Carolina. Their success in capturing Savannah Georgia, and the hope that a much larger loyalist population in the southern colonies would turn out to support the crown if a British army established a presence, led them to think that they could have a chance of retaking the southern colonies with a relatively small force of regulars. 

Gen. Henry Clinton

British General Henry Clinton had been planning for an invasion of Charleston for nearly two years.  General Clinton’s first foray in the war had been at the head of an invasion fleet in 1776 where he tried to take Charleston, and failed.  He was unable to land his army and the fleet was pounded by Fort Sullivan, later called Fort Moultrie, until they were forced to withdraw, then heading up to New York to participate in the invasion of New York under General Howe (see Episode 96).  Clinton was mortified by his inability to take Charleston in 1776.  He spent years obsessively writing about it and blaming others.  He feared for the longest time that it would end his military career. So capturing Charleston was a personal obsession, and one that he absolutely could not fail at a second time.

Clinton would lead the invasion force personally, bringing with him this top General, Charles Cornwallis, and all of the best soldiers he still commanded in America.  He had abandoned Newport, Rhode Island a few months earlier to consolidate his forces.  He would leave a relatively small force in New York City, under the command of Hessian General Wilhelm von Knyphausen.  

Invasion Fleet

Clinton had left New York on December 26, 1779 with more than 8000 soldiers.  These included several regiments of mounted cavalry, and a large contingent of artillery.  A fleet of 90 ships carried his force southward, accompanied by another fourteen naval warships, six of which were large ships of the line, all commanded by Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, the new naval commander in America and with crews totaling another nearly 5000 sailors.  Leaving little to chance, Clinton was bringing an overwhelming force to take the city.

Marriot Arbuthnot

The voyage south was not an easy one.  On December 27, the first full day at sea, a storm struck the fleet and battered the ships for four days. A couple of days later, the winds began blowing to the northeast, and grew stronger, as the day wore on, not only was the wind blowing the fleet in the wrong directions, the winds toppled masts and inflicted other damage.  Rain, hail, and snow pelted the ships as soldiers and sailors endured brutal cold and seasickness brought on by the stormy ocean.  

Many of the horses suffered broken legs from being thrown about and had to be tossed overboard.  My thoughts go out to the soldiers assigned to carry the 700 pound horse corpse up to the deck, while the ship was rocking violently, then through the pelting snow and hail to throw the horse overboard while avoiding plunging into the sea themselves, then repeat that many more times -- the joys of army life, I guess.

After several weeks of brutal storms, the fleet was scattered all over the Atlantic Ocean.  One ship full of Hessians ended up being blown all the way to England, where it put into port for repairs.

By the end of January, the fleet managed to gather about two-thirds of its ships off the coast of Florida, having well overshot their target in South Carolina.  There, ships got caught up in the gulf stream and got pulled further out to sea.  Finally on February 1, after more than a month at sea, the fleet spotted the lighthouse at Tybee Island and dropped anchor off the Georgia coast near Savannah.  There, the fleet reunited with another 18 ships that had been split off from the fleet during the storms.

At a council of war, held aboard ship, some officers recommended getting off the ships while they could and marching from Savannah to Charleston overland.  Clinton thought it best to sail up using inland waterways.  But the majority of officers strongly objected. Clinton ended up taking their advice to remain at sea.  With the weather improved. Clinton would try his luck on the water for a bit longer.  

He did drop off part of his force at Savannah.  Colonel Banstre Tarleton was tasked with taking his dismounted cavalry to find new horses, since all of his had died during the voyage.  Also leaving the fleet were 1400 infantry soldiers under Brigadier General James Paterson.  His mission was to march toward Augusta as a feint, in hopes that some of the Continentals or militia that might be defending Charleston could be drawn inland to northern Georgia to challenge the British offensive there.  Among Paterson’s brigade was Major Patrick Ferguson, who commanded a regiment of loyalists who had been recruited in the New York area.

After just over a week, on February 9, the fleet departed Savannah, heading north up the coast.  They reached Trench’s Island, known today as Hilton Head, that night.  Two days later, British forces landed on John’s Island just south of Charleston.  For those unfamiliar the southern approach to Charleston is a mess of islands, swamps and waterways, even more so in the 18th century than it is today.  Moving ships through this region was fraught with danger of being caught on a sandbar or otherwise getting hopelessly stuck.

Admiral Arbothnot gave responsibility for the landing to a young captain named George Keith Elphinstone.  Captain Elphinstone came from an old Scottish family. His father was a lord.  Two of his older brothers were British officers. Elphinstone followed the path of a third brother by joining the navy at the age of 15, in time to see combat in America near the end of the French and Indian War.  He spent his career sailing all over the world, including a trip to China for the East India Company.  Elphinstone knew the Carolina coast well and assured his superiors he could get the army ashore without difficulty.

The captain managed to guide the fleet into the outer harbor and offload the army unopposed by any rebel forces.  The quick debarkation was critical since another storm was approaching.  Fortunately for the British they managed to get the men ashore before the storm hit that evening.

The Landing

Generals Clinton and Cornwallis personally landed with the troops, and set about making the approach to Charleston.  Clinton had left a portion of his army in Savannah, so he only had about 6000 soldiers with him by this time.  The British army under General Prevost had occupied this area a few months earlier, but had abandoned it just prior to the Siege of Savannah.  This time, they were back, and in greater numbers.

Johann Ewald
One of the best accounts that we have of the British approach on Charleston comes from Captain Johann Ewald, a Hessian commander whose detailed journal paints an eloquent picture of the British attack.  Ewald’s jaegers marched with a larger division commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James Webster.  The column marched out on February 14, struggling through the swampy terrain in an attempt to reach Stono Ferry. 

At one point, the column stumbled out of the woods to come face to face with what they thought was an ambush.  The column saw a fortified village just on the other side of a river, with armed patriot soldiers.  Ewald noted that the Americans could have cut the column to pieces since they were already within rifle range, were not formed in a line of battle, and had no way of charging the enemy due to the river.

Fortunately for the British it was not an ambush. The patriots defending the area were just as surprised at the presence of the enemy as the British were. Colonel Webster ordered the column to about face and marched out of rifle range while the stunned defenders simply sat and observed, with no one firing.

Ewald then returned to the enemy with one other officer, waiving a white handkerchief.  He approached the enemy, saying that he recognized them as part of Pulaski’s legion and asked about a man he knew who was a member of the legion.  In fact, it was a ruse.  Ewald wanted to get a better look at the defenses and to see if the enemy had boats that might be captured in order to carry the British up river.  The two officers conversed with the enemy and were permitted to return. An American officer even politely warned them to be careful as the swamps they were marching through had alligators as large as sixteen feet.

That night, the Americans retreated.  The British were able to march to Stono on James Island unopposed.  In their new position, General Clinton’s forces were directly across the river from Charleston.

The British forces moved slowly but deliberately.  Although they had begun their landing in early February, they moved cautiously through the swamps and tributaries below Charleston.  General Clinton spent days building up fortifications at Stono Ferry in preparation for his next move forward.  Sending out patrols to gain intelligence or to seize slaves or livestock was fraught with danger.  British patrols fell under ambush.

By March 1, Britain had secured all of James Island, but still was not ready to begin the siege.  Admiral Arbuthnot failed to bring his ships over the sandbar into Charleston Harbor, fearing that his fleet would be subject to attack and unable to escape at low tide.  

On March 10, Lord Cornwallis began crossing his army onto the mainland, fearing an American attack at any time.  The attack never came.  The British Navy managed to send some supply ships up Stono Creek to provide the advancing army with much needed food and supplies.

The British put captured slaves to work as laborers, building fortifications opposite those of the enemy in Charleston.  British engineers then mounted artillery to shell any American ships that attempted to use the waterway between the British and the Americans, and to shell the American fortifications directly.

Rather than attacking the Americans in Charleston directly, the British moved northward to the west of Charleston, with an eye towards surrounding the city. On March 22, General Alexander Leslie led a force of mostly Hessian Jaegers toward two nearby plantations, Middleton Place and Drayton Hall.  There, the British came under American artillery fire. Rather than charge the lines, Leslie had Hessian Captain Ewald take a group of about 50 Jaegers further upriver, cross through a difficult swamp, and attack the American line from the rear.  The Americans withdrew in good order, resulting in the Hessians having only a minor firefight with the American rearguard.

The British continued to move forward.  They met with a few rifle shots now and then, but the soldiers seemed more concerned with the alligators, snakes, and relentless mosquitoes than any human enemies.  The bulk of the Continental Army and militia remained inside Charleston awaiting the inevitable attack, rather than confronting the British out in the swamps.

Although the Americans had built up impressive defenses at Ashley Ferry on the Ashley River, the British managed to sail a small fleet of flatboats right past them at night, without a shot fired.  British light infantry and Hessian Jaegers continued moving around the perimeter of Charleston, capturing key plantations and occasionally skirmishing with American riflemen.

The Boston
By April 1, the British were within 800 yards of the main American lines at Charleston.  The British Navy still had not entered the harbor. The American naval commander, Commodore Abraham Whipple, however, decided his small fleet of frigates: the Providence, Boston, Queen of France, and Ranger and a few smaller sloops would be no match for the British men of war.  The entire fleet had only 112 guns, fewer than two British ships of the line.  Commodore Whipple opted to scuttle most of his ships inside the harbor, creating barriers for the British fleet, and moved his canons to the land defenses around Charleston.

The suicide of the American fleet was enough to convince British Admiral Arbuthnot to enter the harbor.  On April 8, the British fleet sailed past Fort Moultrie, taking only minor damage from the fort’s canons.

It had been more than three months since the British had left New York to begin the campaign. It had taken fifty days to move the British the last thirty miles to get into position. They had yet to fight a major battle. General Clinton moved slowly and cautiously to get his men into a position where they could batter the American defenses relentlessly and compel a surrender.  

By Mid-April, Clinton was ready to begin this new phase of the siege.  Given the superiority of British armaments, the Americans would be forced to retreat, surrender, or die.  In any of those scenarios, General Clinton would finally take Charleston, erasing what he saw as the greatest blemish on his military record.

Next week: the fall of Charleston.

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Next Episode 248 Charleston Falls 

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Further Reading


Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Lincoln, Benjamin Original papers relating to the siege of Charleston, 1780,  Charleston, S.C., Press of Walker, Evans & Cogswell Co. 1898.

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

Smith, Paul Hubert, Gephart, Ronald M. Letters of delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Vol 14, Washington: Library of Congress, 1987. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Buchanan, John The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, Wiley, 1999. 

Edgar, Walter B. Partisans and Redcoats: The southern conflict that turned the tide of the American Revolution, New York: Morrow, 2001 (or borrow on

Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.

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

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

Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan Company, 1952 (borrow on 

Willcox, William B. Portrait of a General; Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, Knopf, 1964 (borrow on 

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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