Episode 058

Charleston Has Fallen – 1780 Siege of Charleston, SC

Henry Clinton realizes that the North is a stalemate, and sets his eyes on what he thinks is a hot bed of British Loyalists who will rally to the King in Charleston, SC.

In April of 1780, George Washington and his men are finishing up their cold, cold winter in Morristown, NJ. However, in the south the spring starts a little earlier, and while Washington was trying to procure food and supplies for his men, a southern stronghold would fall to the British…

The stalemate in the northern theater of the war after 1778-1779 led the British leadership to renew its interest in the southern theater. The British, most importantly their commander Sir Henry Clinton. remained convinced that the southern colonies were full of American Loyalists waiting for British authorities to liberate them from Patriot rule. Clinton also realized that he could not take the north with the forces that he had been given. Patriot forces had repelled attempts to gain a foothold in the southern colonies at Moore’s Creek Bridge and Charleston in 1776, but the successful capture of Savannah, Georgia, at the end of 1778 had restored British hopes that Charleston could be captured and that this success would swell Loyalist support for the British campaign to subdue the rebellion.

In reality, South Carolina was a deeply divided state, and the British presence let loose the full violence of an almost civil war upon the population. First, the British used Loyalists to pacify the Patriot population; the Patriots returned the violence in kind. The guerrilla warfare strategies employed by Patriots Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter and Nathanael Greene throughout the Carolina campaign of 1780-81 eventually chased the far more numerous British force into Virginia, where they eventually surrendered at Yorktown on October 19, 1781

The Americans, meanwhile, knew that Charleston was a likely target for the British following the capture of Savannah. Major General Benjamin Lincoln was given command of the defense of Charleston in September 1779. In his initial instructions to Lincoln, General George Washington warned him of the impending British attack, but expressed his regrets that he could not offer any military assistance because of the need to maintain adequate Continental forces around the northern British stronghold in New York City.1 When Lincoln arrived, many of the fortresses defending Charleston’s harbor were in disrepair, and the fortifications on its western and southern sides (the sides facing the city’s landward approaches) were unfinished. Lincoln and his subordinates worked diligently to repair the fortifications around the city and the Continental Army leadership beseeched the southern states to provide men and materiel to defend Charleston.

Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton’s expeditionary force of some 13,500 British and German soldiers departed New York just after Christmas in 1779. Clinton, who had always been a poor sailor, hated the sea when it was troubled, and spent most of the journey seasick. During the voyage, Johann Hinrichs of the Jager Corp wrote in his diary: “Always the same weather!”, the same indicated the “storm, rain, hail, snow and the waves breaking over the cabin”. During the worst of it, the ships would furl their sails and drift during the night with the wheel lashed down and the ship buttoned up as tightly as possible.

In the mornings, when they could see, each ship would discover that it was alone, or in the company of a few others. During the day, they tried to collect themselves if weather permitted. Usually, however, the weather permitted very little, as masts crashed down under the pounding, sails were ripped to shreds and hulls sprang leaks. Henrich watched the sinking of the George, a transport with the infantry aboard “Throwing their belongings and themselves head over heels into the boats”. The soldiers fared better than the horses, most of whom were injured and had to be put down. As the month of January wound to a close, the British fleet found themselves in the mouth of the Savannah River and pushed on to Tybee Island where the crews dried out and repaired their vessels.

Within 10 days Clinton declared the army ready to proceed and on Feb 11, the troops began putting ashore on Simmons Island (now Seabrook) and over the next 10 days the men slogged across marshes on James and Johns islands. Clinton sat the men down in a rough camp and stopped his advance aside from establishing a beachhead at Stono Ferry on the mainland. Clinton wanted to prepare his force. He needed to establish supply depots and magazines, and he also sent for reinforcements from detachments in Georgia and ordered more troops be sent from New York. Clinton also had to wait on the navy to make it’s way into the upper harbor of Charleston, where it’s heavy guns could be put ashore for the siege he had decided upon and where its small boats could be used to ferry troops across the Ashley River to the peninsula on which Charleston was located.

Charleston, the only city of any size in the southern states ordinarily numbered about 12,000 citizens most of them English stock, but with a mix of black slaves, french protestants and a sprinkling of spaniards and germans. It lay on a peninsula cut by the Ashley river on the west and the Cooper on the east. Since 1776, Charleston’s defenses had decayed. From the seaward side, Fort Moultrie and Fort Johnson had fallen into disrepair. They were occupied and seemed to stand in the way of an enemy coming from the outer (or lower) harbor, but in reality nature offered a more formidable defense in the shape of a heavy sand bar. The bar could be crossed at five places, but all the points of crossing were so shallow, so heavy ships would not be able to pass. Frigates and smaller vessels could make it, but not without lightening their load first.

A series of terraced works of palmetto logs protected the tip of the “Neck” which is what the peninsula was called. And along the side of each river there were redoubts, trenches, and small fortifications. The redoubt at the tip held sixteen heavy guns, and the forts along the river had from three to nine guns each. However, Benjamin Lincoln, in command of the city’s garrison, expected attack by sea, and neglected the land based defenses and even the completion of the land works that stretched across the neck. At the heart of the land based defenses was the citadel, or “hornwork” or “old royal work” which was a fort made of “tapia” or “tappy” which was a mix of oyster shells, lime, sand and water. The fort had 18 guns. There were redoubts on either side of it, but they were not complete, or even located well.

When Clinton landed, Lincoln had in his command 800 South Carolina continentals, 400 Virginia continentals, around 380 of Polaskis Legion, 2000 Carolina militia and a small number of dragoons. In April, before Clinton closed off the city, he would be reinforced from Virginia and North Carolina.

Meanwhile Clinton, had gathered his troops and supplies, and even obtained 1500 more men from Georgia. He was ready to strike. On the night of March 29, Clinton began sending his reinforced army across the Ashley River at Draytons Landing, 12 miles from Charleston. The American’s did not oppose the landing, and by April 1, Clinton’s forces had moved to within 1,000 yards of the defenses across the Neck. There, they began a process called “opening a parallel”, where the British Engineers, roughly 800 yards out from the American lines built trenches and redoubts that roughly paralleled the American siege works.

Clinton went into Charleston, not wanting a battle. Instead, he had hoped to cut off Charleston and force Lincoln to surrender. His purposes were both political and military. If he captured Charleston, intact with minimal damage to infrastructure and population, how good would the British look to Charleston loyalists? or those with soft allegiances? Clinton himself even said that it is “Absurd, impolitic, and inhuman to burn a town you mean to occupy”

The distance of only 800 yards would make artillery fire extremely effective by Revolutionary War standards. Generally most guns were unreliable past 1200 yards, with 400-800 being their sweet spot. But the British after they finished their parallel lines began digging perpendicular lines, and new parallel lines, pushing themselves closer and closer to the American lines, all while under fire from American artillery.

The artillery exchange between the two forces brings up an interesting situation. The British engineers are getting closer and closer to the Americans. The Americans are shooting at them and the British lines, the British are shooting over their heads at the Americans, but artillery at the time is inaccurate and rounds commonly came up short. So it was hard for the engineers to tell who was actually firing at them.

As they got closer and closer, they could see first hand the effects of their artillery. A shell struck an American emplacement, and as a british engineer reported it: “It burst as it fell, throwing two artillerymen from the emplacement into the trench and blowing up the enemy’s platform.”

Being this close, the horror on each side increased, and men on both sides broke. The terror would breed confusion as to which side was winning and each lost deserters to the other.

Late in April, the third parallel had been completed. The men were now almost right on top of each other. Clinton, had insisted that his men stationed in those trenches NOT have loaded muskets, instead they were to fix the bayonet. To Clinton, the bayonet meant discipline. Discipline, pride and spirit. It was probably a multitude of factors, unloaded muskets and the horror or artillery included that caused his men in the 3rd parallel to panic on the night of April 24 when 200 Americans made a sortie against one end of the 3rd parallel. The jagers there ran back to the second, but even so the Americans managed to kill or would 50 and capture at least a dozen more.

The following night, April 25, the men stationed in the 3rd parallel abandoned their post when their heard small arms fire and yelling from the American side, which in turn set off a wild round of firing from the men in the 2nd parallel, thinking their brothers had been overrun and that a a force of Americans was right behind them. An officer whose men had fled from the 3rd parallel later stated: “Everywhere they saw rebels. They believed the enemy had made a sortie and fired musketry for over half an hour, though not a single rebel had passed the ditch”

No, not a single rebel had passed the ditch. Because the man commanding those rebels had offered his surrender 4 days prior. Escape from the city was closed off and Lincoln lost all hope, Civilians in Charleston refused to allow him to surrender, some thought Washington would march south and save them. Lincoln tried to persuade them that default was inevitable. On April 21 he offered his surrender to Clinton, on the condition that he and his army be allowed to leave on their own terms. Clinton turned him down immediately.

By the end of the first week of May the two armies were separated by only a few yards. The engineers had dug right up to the American lines. Lincoln again tried to surrender, and Clinton refused. On the night of May 9 both sides shelled each other heavily. This time, firing into wooden houses, the British artillery proved more effective, with many houses burning the civilian population decided they had enough.

Surrender finally came on May 12. The officers were allowed to keep their swords until the shouts of “Long live Congress” got on British nerves, so they took their swords away. The surrender terms were indeed harsh by the standards of the day. Lincoln and his command were refused the honors of war, and many of the 2,500 Continentals who surrendered would not survive their imprisonment.

The dead and wounded were surprisingly few on both sides 76 British killed and 189 wounded, and 89 Americans killed and 138 wounded. The American loss of weapons and supplies was heavy 343 artillery pieces, 6000 muskets, 376 barrels of powder and over 30,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition, plus large stores of rum, rice and indigo.

Three days after the surrender, a tragic accident took place. The captured muskets had been thrown carelessly into a wooden building where gunpowder was stored. A loaded musket tossed onto the pile must have gone off – An explosion followed setting six houses afire and killing some 200 people.

Like This Episode?

What are your thoughts? Discuss below...

Free Updates by Email

Get show updates and notes directly in your email inbox!