May 12, 1780

By 1779 lack of success in the North and French intervention forced the British to rethink their strategy.  The South was wealthier than the North, and the capture of a major port would help the naval war against France.  The rich rice producing lowlands would better support an army and allow for more active campaigning.  Loyalists were more numerous in the South and might be encouraged to join the cause.  Savannah, Georgia had already been captured, but attempts on Charleston had been so far repulsed.  A larger army with proper naval support might be successful, however.

Sir Henry Clinton left Sandy Hook outside of New York harbor on the day after Christmas, 1779, with 8,700 men.  Storms scattered ships and even sank some.  Most of the horses were lost, and one ship was even blown clear across the Atlantic.  A majority of the ships, however, were off the Georgia coast near Savannah by the end of January 1780.  Clinton sent 1,400 men, including his cavalry on a raid into the Georgia interior and proceeded by sea to Charleston. 

Charleston Harbor

Clinton had commanded the failed 1776 expedition to Charleston, so he was familiar with the difficulties of capturing the place.  The channel into the harbor followed the coast north until reaching the harbor entrance.  This channel was narrow and could be defended by a smaller naval force at the bar.  If a naval force got to the harbor entrance, it had to deal with shoals where Ft Sumter would later be built, and with guns at Ft Moultrie on Sullivan's Island.  Once these obstacles were passed, there was an additional shoal in the harbor and guns at Ft Johnson on James Island and in Charleston itself.   The American army in Charleston had 3,600 men under Maj Gen Benjamin Lincoln.   Commodore Whipple commanded eight warships.

On the advice of a Captain Elphinstone of the Royal Navy, Clinton decided on an approach up the North Edisto Inlet in order to land on modern Seabrook Island, just south of John's Island, which was done on February 11th, just in time to escape another bad storm.  James Island was taken in the coming days, and a bridgehead was established on the mainland across the Stono River.  On March 20th the Royal Navy crossed the bar and entered the shipping channel, and in the coming days, the detachment that had raided Georgia arrived.  Clinton was now near to Charleston as the crow flies, but still separated by the Ashley River, which was a formidable obstacle on its lower reaches.  The Americans were expecting a crossing near Ashley Ferry.  Instead, on the night of March 28th and 29th, Clinton had 75 flatboats quietly rowed further upstream to cross at Drayton Hall.

Drayton Hall

The Drayton family was involved with revolutionary politics, so it should come as no surprise that the British made use of the family furniture - outdoors.  


Here, behind Drayton Hall, the British crossed the Ashley River, paddling a mile upstream to land on firm ground.  The only American defenders in sight were some dragoon, and an American redoubt was found undefended.  Clinton was now 12 miles upstream from Charleston, and the most obvious American escape route was closed. 


On March 30th, Clinton marched on Charleston, and on April 1st, he broke ground on siege lines.  On April 8th, the Royal Navy passed Ft Moultrie and successful brought Clinton supplies he needed for the siege.  The Charleston defenses were formidable - 66 American guns, two lines of abatis, a canal serving as a moat, and a stone hornwork in the center of the line, so when Clinton asked Lincoln to surrender on the 10th after comleting the 1st parallel, the American predictably declined.  A 2nd and a 3rd parallel would be dug, but Clinton had yet to complete the encirclement.

From Patriot's Point

This is the view from the north side of the Cooper River, modern day Patriot's Point.  Castle Pinckney, then Shute's Folly, is the dark mass below the sunset at left.  The American fleet was in the river behind a log boom between Shute's Folly (modern Castle Pinckney) and Charleston while the sailors manned guns ashore protecting the city.  The British main camp was on the peninsula in the area of the modern suspension bridge.  Clinton sent a portion of his force upstream then across the Cooper River to cut off American supplies and reinforcements coming from the north.  The Brits won a victory at Monck's Corner on April 14th, and by the 25th, the British marines occupied the riverbank across from Charleston, Lempriere's Point, beyond the modern suspension bridge, and Hadrell's Point, which is off the panorama to the left.   The marines were later replaced by army troops.  On May 7th, Ft Moultrie was taken by marines.  The garrison of Charleston was now trapped, with the only hope being a breakout.   Civilian leadership had opposed evacuation, and now that evacuation was impossible, they opposed a break out.  


A small portion of the hornwork, or citadel, protecting Charleston still remains.  There are no other modern reminders of the siege.  On April 24th, an American sortie damaged some of the British works, but they were repaired and work continued.  On May 1st, the British sap reached and began destroying the dam that kept water in the American ditch.  Meanwhile, the British were also digging the 3rd parallel.  Rifle fire was taking a toll in the American trenches even through the gap of just a few inches between the parapet and the sandbags that had been placed above the parapet.  Although the British troops were eager to storm the town, Clinton was not, so on May 8th, he sent another summons to surrender.  With the situation clearly hopeless, Lincoln entered into negotiations, but he rejected the harsh British terms.  The siege continued on the 9th, and the British saps continued forward through the American abatis to within 30 paces of the American lines.  On the 10th, the militia abandoned the trenches and could not be persuaded to return.  The next day, the civilian authorities made it known that it was time to surrender.  Many of the American guns had been disabled, the city had been bombarded.  Meat was scarce.  So on the afternoon of the 11th, the white flag was shown, and Lincoln made it known that he would accept Clinton's previous offer.  The American regulars, only 1,500 to 1,600 Continentals weren't sick, marched out and laid down their arms the next day.  They would become prisoners of war.  The militia laid down their arms in town.  They were paroled.  After the surrender, an explosion of gunpowder in Charleston near a poorhouse and a whorehouse caused many needless casualties.

Powder Magazine

Exchange Building

Not all the powder was blown up.  Before the surrender, Gen Moultrie had gunpowder taken from Charleston's Powder Magazine and placed under the Exchange Building and bricked up.  British headquarters were located in the building until evacuation in 1783, but the powder was never discovered.

Waxhaws May 29, 1780

The British moved inland to occupy the colony.  Lt Col Banastre Tarleton with the British Legion pursued, and on May 29, caught a Virginia infantry battalion under Col Abraham Buford at Waxhaws.   The British cavalry charged into the patriot infantry line, which waited too late to fire.  Tarleton's victory was total.  With the loss of only 4 killed and 13 wounded, Tarleton killed 113 Americans and wounded or captured 203.  Of these 203 captured, 150 were too wounded to be moved.  In a typical battle of the era, there would be four or five times more wounded than killed.  Tarleton gained the reputation of not taking prisoners, and the butchery at Waxhaws would provoke many reprisals.  The war in the South would become a brutal affair.    


Rice Paddy at Middleton Plantation and Indigo at a Charleston Garden

Clinton left the Carolinas, returning to New York and leaving Cornwallis in command in the South.  South Carolina was now largely defenseless to British invasion, and many people, out of either genuine loyalty or simply out of self-preservation, proclaimed their loyalty to the King.  A wealthy colony with an abundance of indigo and rice, South Carolina might provide adequate supplies and funding for active campaigning year round.  North Carolina and Virginia were poorly protected, and George Washington's northern army would soon be dealing with problems like Benedict Arnold's attempted betrayal of West Point and the mutiny of troops from several states.  With everything in their favor, why did the British fail in the South?


Exchange Building - British Headquarters

The British failed in the South for the same reasons they failed in the North.  Like in the North, the Loyalist population of the South was not as numerous as had been believed.  As in the North, British depredations, primarily those of foraging parties, lost the King friends.  Events like the 'Waxhaws Massacre' became American propaganda victories.  And on June 3rd, before Clinton departed, he issued a proclamation stating that those who did not return to their allegiance to the king would be treated as enemies and rebels.  You were either with the British or you were against them.  Forced to choose, many men sided with the rebels.  Organizing guerilla bands, they were no match for regulars, but they hindered British supply and forced the British to disperse their troops across the colony in an effort to control it.  If the patriots could form another regular army, perhaps the South could be liberated.  Just such an army, under the 'Hero of Saratoga', Horatio Gates, was being organized to oppose the redcoats.  It would strike at a British outpost at Camden in August.

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