In our last episode, we left the British having positioned themselves around Charleston. General Henry Clinton, along with General Cornwallis and Admiral Arbuthnot, had positioned their forces around the city - ready, by the end of April 1780 to blast the American defenses and take Charleston for the king.
The American Commander, General Benjamin Lincoln, remained in Charleston, awaiting the British attack. Lincoln had assigned Lieutenant Colonel William Washington to command the light infantry forces outside of the city, to skirmish with the advancing British and Hessians.
Also outside of Charleston was Brigadier General Isaac Huger. Although Huger was a Continental General, he was given command of about 500 South Carolina militia who had been called up to oppose the British attack.
With these forces, Huger secured a position at Monck’s Corner, a crossroad along the Cooper River, a little more than 30 miles north of Charleston. American control kept supply lines and communications lines from Charleston open to the north.
Despite the importance of this position Huger found that his militia were woefully inadequate to face any attack. He reported that two of his companies did not even have muskets. A third company had muskets but no ammunition. These men were largely untrained and untested in battle. Huger put his militia in reserve on the far bank of the river, relying on Colonel Washington to engage with the enemy with his Continentals, and on the militia as backup.
British General Clinton wanted to take Monck’s Corner, as a way of further isolating the American defenders inside Charleston. He deployed Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, still in command of a loyalist cavalry that did not have enough horses for all of the men. With them was a loyalist infantry regiment commanded by another regular officer Major Patrick Ferguson. Both men were experienced combat officers. Tarleton had gained a reputation during the fighting around New York and Philadelphia as an aggressive commander. Ferguson, inventor of the Ferguson rifle, had been badly wounded at Brandywine, but had returned to service. With them Lieutenant Colonel James Webster led two regiments of British regulars. Although Colonel Webster was the senior officer, he kept his regulars in reserve and gave Colonel Tarleton order to lead the strike on the enemy.
On the evening of April 13, Tarleton’s legion and Ferguson’s volunteers moved forward in a night march, planning to attack the Americans before dawn. During their advance, they captured an American courier with a letter from Huger to Lincoln, which described the deployment of the American defenses at Monck’s Corner. Tarleton moved quickly, advancing 18 miles in a five hour night match. At around 3:00 AM, the British reached the American Camp.
The Americans were taken completely by surprise. General Huger and Colonel Washington fled into the nearby swamps with some of their men, abandoning their horses and equipment. One French officer with the Americans, Chevalier Pierre-Francois Vernier attempted to surrender but was struck down by the British attackers and killed. The Americans put up almost no defense as they fled in terror. One company of Americans simply fell in line behind the British and pretended to march along with them as allies until they had an opportunity to flee into the swamps before first light.
The British managed to kill or wound thirty-three Americans, and captured another 63, with the remainder fleeing into the swamps. The British suffered only three wounded among the attackers. It was a complete route. The British captured the camp and all of its contents. Charleston was now cut off from the north. Colonel Tarleton also happily reported that he had captured enough horses that he could finally mount his entire cavalry regiment.
Tarleton, never one to rest on his laurels, moved his cavalry back toward the coast, along the eastern side of Charleston, where he managed to capture nine sloops carrying patriot supplies, including twenty canons.
Defense of Charleston
The British had spent months slowly encircling Charleston, giving its defenders time to react. Up until this time, General Benjamin Lincoln, commander of the southern army, had been frustrated by the lack of cooperation that he had received from the local political leaders. But with the threat of British invasion literally staring at them from across the river, the political leaders finally fell in line and gave the Continental general the support he needed to defend the city. I’m joking of course. The political leadership in South Carolina continued to bicker with the military commander and even with disaster on the horizon, refused to make certain compromises.
|Gov. John Rutledge
South Carolina leaders had repeatedly rejected any plans to arm slaves for defense of the state. Lincoln had called on state leaders to raise 2000 white militia. But if they could not, then fill the ranks with black soldiers. The response was… nothing. The President of South Carolina, John Rutledge, refused even to respond to the request. Allowing blacks to use guns, even if they were freed afterwards, would put a dangerous element in the state that could eventually harm them. Those soldiers could form the core of a future slave uprising to liberate their fellow laborers. So with armed blacks off the table, Lincoln suggested at least created a pioneer force from slaves. Pioneers would handle the dirty work of digging tunnels and entrenchments. It was common labor that slaves were used for all the time. These men would not learn to fire guns, or even touch combat weapons. Again, the answer was no. Even training black people to work as a unit and giving them any sort of training was simply unacceptable.
A frustrated Lincoln told officials that if he could not get support of local militia, either black or white, that he would have to abandon the city to the British. Rutledge’s response was that Lincoln was bluffing. Charleston was too important to the cause of the United States and he would never abandon the city. The state could not raise enough white soldiers, would not provide any black soldiers, and Lincoln would have to find a way to make the defense of the city work anyway.
Rutledge was correct. Lincoln had direct orders from Congress to hold Charleston at all costs. Any attempt to abandon the city without a fight would have meant an ignominious end to this military career, much like it did for Generals Phillip Schuyler and Arthur St. Clair, who had abandoned Fort Ticonderoga without a fight a few years earlier. Beyond that, Lincoln has spent a year building up the defenses around the city. The British force outnumbered his by about two to one. If Lincoln retreated now, he would likely have to face the British in the open field. It was better to engage from behind their entrenchments. The arrival of 750 Virginia Continentals in April had boosted spirits, but that only gave Lincoln about 2500 regulars, supplemented by another 3000 or so militia and sailors from the wrecked ships.
British General Clinton commented on the arrival of American reinforcements as good news - more prisoners when the Americans surrendered. The British navy had established itself in the inner harbor. British artillery was poised to decimate the city, and British infantry and cavalry was well on its way toward surrounding the city.
Lincoln advised Governor Rutledge to leave the city with the rest of the civilian leadership. Rutledge left town with three councilmen, but Lieutenant Governor Christopher Gadsden and others remained in Charleston. Gadsden, you may recall, had been appointed a brigadier in the Continental Army, but resigned his commission when he grew frustrated at his inability to give orders to major generals in his state. As acting governor, however, Gadsden believed could use his civilian leadership to instruct the army on the defense of Charleston.
Lincoln called a council of war to discuss an attack on a relatively isolated post of 750 enemy soldiers near Wappetaw. His officer unanimously opposed the action, and instead suggested consideration of evacuating the city. General Lachlan McIntosh argued for immediate evacuation of the Continental Army, so that it could survive to fight another day, preferably further inland - once the British army was more spread out and unsupported by its navy. Delay meant the likelihood that they would be surrounded. Lincoln, however, could not bring himself to abandon the city without even a fight.
A few days later, on April 18, 2600 British and Hessian reinforcements arrived from New York, only increasing the imbalance of forces. Lincoln gathered a council of war a few days later on April 20, to once again consider their options. McIntosh still believed that evacuation was possible. Other officers believed Lincoln should simply ask for terms of surrender.
Gadsden joined the council for a time, asked that they not take any action until he could discuss the situation with South Carolina’s Privy Council, and left. As the officers continued their discussions, Gadsden returned with several Privy Council members. The exact words exchanged were not recorded but one witness noted that the civilians “used the council rudely” and insisted that they not try to abandon the city. They claimed that the South Carolina militia, most of whom had never stood in battle before, were willing to fight to the last man, and that the Continentals should be willing to do so as well. One member of the Privy Council even threatened that if the Continentals attempted to abandon the city, that Charleston would throw open the gates to the British and help them capture the Continentals.
Lincoln did not make any final decision that night. But the next morning, he summoned his officers once again. They agreed to ask the British for terms of surrender. The Army would be slaughtered if it attempted to retreat across waterways that the British had already blocked. On April 21, Lincoln ordered a soldier to go to the British lines under a flag of truce to request a six-hour cessation of hostilities so that the Americans could propose terms of surrender.
Lincoln proposed that the Continental Army be permitted to leave the city with its arms and equipment, and march north for at least ten days unmolested, that Continental ships be permitted to depart the harbor, and that all citizens be protected in their persons and property. Clinton countered with the proposal that they all surrender unconditionally, so that the British would not have to kill them and level the city. Unable to agree on terms, the two sides continued the siege.
Both sides kept up fire on each other day and night. On the morning of April 24, two hundred Continentals attacked a Hessian work party that was digging advanced works close to the enemy lines. The Americans managed to kill about 15 of the enemy with bayonets, and take almost as many prisoners. However, General Moultrie’s brother Thomas was killed in the attack.
General Louis Duportail arrived from Washington’s headquarters the following day. The experienced French engineer who had taken a commission in the Continental Army years earlier. He had arrived too late, however, to assist with the Charleston defenses. He also arrived with the bad news that Washington would not be sending any more reinforcements. The Continental leaders once again considered a risky evacuation, but decided against it.
The siege continued for another couple of weeks. The Americans had to slow their rate of fire to conserve ammunition. The British pounded away at the American defenses and slowly moved their lines closer together. The Americans could no longer bring food into the city and could not even send couriers.
On May 7, Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island, surrendered to the British. The following day, Clinton called on Lincoln, once again, to surrender, adding that failure to do so would mean that any “vindictive severity” that fell on the city after its capture, would be Lincoln’s fault. In further discussion, the Americans requested, while the Continentals would be prisoners of war, they be allowed to keep their baggage and side arms, and that the militia be allowed to go home on parole. Clinton refused the terms.
On May 8, General Lincoln informed General Clinton that he would accept the term Clinton had offered in his last letter, and the guns fell silent on both sides. On May 12, the defenders marched out of Charleston. Clinton had denied them the honors of war and prohibited them from flying their regimental flags. The defenders stacked the muskets and marched off to their fates as prisoners of war. Only 500 militia surrendered with the army. The remainder had fled or hid inside the city, hoping to blend in with the civilians.
Clinton appointed General Alexander Leslie to serve as military governor of Charleston. Leslie’s threat to have grenadiers search private homes encouraged many more militia to turn out and surrender their arms. Moultrie noted that it seemed more militia surrendered than had ever appeared under arms during the siege. Apparently, many older or infirm residents surrendered as militia in order to protect younger men.
In total, more than 5000 Americans surrendered in the city, the largest American loss of the entire war. Roughly half were Continental soldiers, many of whom were doomed to die in British captivity. The Americans also surrendered 391 artillery pieces, 6000 muskets, and 33,000 rounds of ammunition. During the siege, the Americans had suffered 89 killed and 138 wounded. The British suffered 76 killed and 189 wounded. The surrender had kept the battle deaths rather light, but the loss of the army was devastating to the American cause.
Charleston’s fall to the British was seen as a great victory in London and among loyalists in America. Even if there were still difficulties in the northern states, the fall of Charleston seemed to foretell that at least the southern colonies would return to crown authority.
Unlike the fall of northern towns, where the capture of a city seemed to have little impact on the surrounding countryside, the fall of Charleston seemed to mean that the fall of all of South Carolina was close at hand. Garrisons in other parts of the state surrendered without a fight. Ninety-six, Camden Beaufort, and Georgetown all surrendered without a fight. South Carolina General Andrew Williamson gave his soldiers the choice of surrendering, or retreating to the mountains to continue the struggle. His men opted for surrender.
Under the terms of surrender, militia were given immediate parole and permitted to return home. They only had to promise never again to take up arms against the king. Clinton attempted a carrot and stick policy in a series of decrees after the fall of Charleston. Anyone who continued to bear arms against the king’s troops, or convince others to do so, would suffer imprisonment and confiscation of all property. On the other hand, a separate decree declared that anyone taking an oath of allegiance would receive a full pardon, despite any past participation in the rebellion. The offer of a pardon and fear of losing property led many in South Carolina to return to the fold as loyal colonists.
Several leading citizens of around Georgetown even sent a note to to General Cornwallis stating
that as the original cause of the disputes between Great Britain and her colonies was our being taxed without being represented -- and by a Proclamation of the 1st June last issued by His Excellency Sir Henry Clinton Knight of the Bath General and Commander in Chief of his Majesty's Forces in America, and Mariot Arbuthnot Esquire Vice Admiral of the Blue and Commander in Chief of his Majesty's Ships, We are assured that we shall not be taxed but by our representatives in General Assembly, We are therefore desirous of becoming British Subjects in which capacity we promise to behave ourselves with all becoming fidelity and loyalty.
General Clinton wrote confidently to Lord Germain in London that South Carolina had been secured. He stated that “there are few men in South Carolina who are not our prisoners or in arms with us.” Within a few weeks General Clinton granted parole to General Lincoln allowing him to report to Philadelphia to brief Congress on the loss. Then, under the terms of his parole, he would be restricted to New England until properly exchanged. Other top generals, including Georgia native Lachlan McIntosh, remained in custody. North Carolina General James Hogan refused parole, preferring to stay in prison with his men, ostensibly to prevent them from joining loyalist regiments in an attempt to get out of prison. Hogan would die in prison a few months later.
Clinton himself returned to New York, leaving Charleston in early June. He turned over command to General Cornwallis. Although the two men did not really get along, Cornwallis’ rank and experience made him the obvious choice for the command. Clinton had accomplished his goal of taking Charleston. Any remaining campaign would be left up to subordinates.
Clinton had not gotten along well with Cornwallis ever since he found out that Cornwallis had betrayed his confidence by telling then-commander General Howe that Clinton had expressed frustration at serving under Howe. Clinton left Cornwallis with instructions to keep South Carolina secure, but also gave him authority to move into North Carolina if he could do so without putting South Carolina at risk. Clinton also took more than a third of the army he had brought south, back to New York, along with Arbithnot and the bulk of the naval fleet. Cornwallis had his independent command to do with it what he could.
Next Week: we head west as the war comes to St. Louis, in present day Missouri
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(from archive.org 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 Amazon.com 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 archive.org).
Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.
Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies, McFarland & Company, 2000.
Willcox, William B. Portrait of a General; Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, Knopf, 1964 (borrow on archive.org).
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.