The Siege of Charleston was one of the major battles which took place towards the end of the American Revolutionary War, after the British began to shift their strategic focus towards fighting in the southern colonies. As a defeat, it was the biggest loss of troops suffered to the revolutionary army in the war wherein the losses consisted essentially of the major part of the forces available to the revolutionaries. By contrast, General Washington avoided attempts to match force on force and adroitly avoided getting his forces pinned strategically so the superior British communications (SLOC) could assemble a crushing blow. At the same time, Washington, at the least with his aide and sub-commander General Lafayette, was cognizant of efforts to bring in the Kingdom of France against the British.
From 1777 to 1778, the British had considerable success in the southern colonies, namely in the Province of Georgia with the Siege of Savannah, whereas the waiting strategy of maneuver adopted by Washington leading the northern army, had the British freedom of action stymied, and with near parity of forces, the conflict was essentially a stalemate. The amount of battles won in the south by the British in 1779 immensely increased in the following year, when they victoriously swept up through South and North Carolina.
In December 1779, Gen. Henry Clinton sailed himself sailed south bound for Charleston from New York City. The British fleet included 90 troopships and 14 warships with more than 8,500 soldiers and 5,000 sailors. Because they had been delayed several months in leaving, the fleet now sailed through stormy seas. The first storm hit on December 27 and lasted 3 days.
On January 1, another storm hit and lasted 6 days. This pattern continued and the fleet was separated. After having been separated by constant storms, about 2/3 of the British fleet had regrouped. However, they found themselves off the coast of Florida and had to sail back north. They went as far as Georgia where a diversionary infantry force was put ashore on February 4. The cavalry commanded by Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton and including Maj. Patrick Ferguson also went ashore to find new mounts. During the voyage the horses had to be put overboard, because of serious injuries like broken legs.
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General Clinton then continued sailing north with the main body of his force. Back in 1776, Clinton had deferred to Admiral Sir Peter Parker whose choice of approach directly into Charleston Harbor had been a disaster. Clinton had learned his lesson from that defeat and chose to land his forces 30 miles south of Charleston and approach overland. While the army marched overland, the ships would sail up the rivers delivering provisions as necessary. The first men were put ashore on February 11.
On February 4, a diversionary infantry force was put ashore in Georgia. The cavalry commanded by Tarleton and including Ferguson also went ashore to find new mounts. During the voyage, the horses had to be put overboard, because of serious injuries like broken legs. Clinton had chosen to land his forces thirty miles south of Charleston and approach overland. The first men, English and Hessian Grenadiers and the 33rd Regiment of Foot, were put ashore on February 11, on the southern tip of John's Island.
On February 14, these men set out in search of Stono Ferry, which was the crossing point to James Island. Later that day, they found the river, but the other bank with fortified and manned by militia. The British retreated without taking fire from the Americans. The next day, they discovered that the Americans had deserted their position overnight.
On February 24, fortifications were completed at Stono Ferry and the British crossed over to James Island the next day. There was a Continental presence on the island. French Chevalier Pierre-François Vernier commanded the cavalry, while Francis Marion commanded the American infantry. They had been observing the British movements for several days.
On February 26, they attacked a returning British scavenging patrol as it passed down a narrow way. The German Jägers came to their rescue and drove Vernier off. In spite of the Continental presence and continued skirmishing with Chevalier Vernier and his cavarly, the British gained control of James Island by March 1.
On March 10, Clinton's second-in-command Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis finally led the main force onto the mainland at Wappoo Cut. On March 11, naval ships finally came up the Stono River and delivered much needed supplies.
From March 11-21, the British fortified their position which was located where the Wappoo Creek flowed into the Ashley River. They mounted artillery to shell American ships and keep the Ashley River secure. They then moved upstream and north, away from Charleston, slowly securing the plantations along the way while the Americans shadowed them from across the river.
On March 29, under the cover of fog , the British crossed the Ashley River upstream from the heavily fortified Ashley Ferry and established themselves on Charleston Neck. When the Americans learned that the British were on the Neck, they abandoned their breastworks at Ashley Ferry.
On April 1, the British had moved down into position to begin their siege works. While the British slowly closed in, naval maneuvering in Charleston Harbor for the Americans was a disaster. In December 1779, 4 frigates had arrived under the command of Commodore Abraham Whipple and were joined by 4 ships from South Carolina and 2 French ships. There were 260 guns afloat and 40 guns at Fort Moultrie. However, even before the British arrived, Whipple informed Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln that the flotilla could not defend the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Lincoln questioned Commodore Whipple's conclusion, but Whipple was backed up by a naval board. Whipple chose to first withdraw to the mouth of the Cooper River. Meanwhile the British began their approach on March 20. When Whipple saw the size of the British attack fleet, he scuttled the ships at the entrance of the river
On April 2, siege works were begun about 800 yards from the American fortifications. During the first few days of the siege, the British operations were under heavy artillery fire. On April 4, they built redoubts near the Ashley and Cooper Rivers to protect their flanks. On April 6, a warship was hauled overland from the Ashley River to the Cooper River to harass crossings by the besieged to the mainland. On April 8, the British fleet moved into the Harbor under fire only from Fort Moultrie.
On April 12, Lt. General Henry Clinton ordered Tarleton and Ferguson to capture Monck's Corner, which was a crossroads just south of Biggins Bridge near the Santee River. Gen. Isaac Huger was stationed there 500 men under orders from Lincoln to hold the crossroads so that communications with Charleston would remain open.
On April 13, during the evening, Tarleton gave orders for a silent march. Later that night, they intercepted a messenger with a letter from Huger to Lincoln and thus learned how the rebels were deployed.
On April 14, at 3:00 A.M., the British reached the American post, catching them completely by surprise and quickly routing them. Following the skirmish, the British fanned out across the countryside and effectively cut off Charleston from outside support. South Carolina Governor John Rutledge left Charleston on April 13.
On April 21, a parlay was made between Lincoln and Clinton, with Lincoln offering to surrender with honor. That is, with colors flying and marching out fully armed, but Clinton was sure of his position and quickly refused the terms. A heavy artillery exchange followed.
On April 23, Cornwallis crossed the Cooper River and assumed command of the British forces blocking escape by land.
On April 24, the Americans ventured out to harass the siege works. The lone American casualty was Tom Moultrie, brother of Brig. Gen. William Moultrie.
On April 29, the British advanced on the left end of the canal that fronted the city's fortifications with the purpose of destorying the dam and draining the canal.
The Americans knew the importance of that canal to the city's defenses and responded with steady and fierce artillery and small arms fire. By the following night, the British had succeeded in draining some water. By May 4, several casualties had been sustained and the fire had been so heavy that work was often suspended. On May 5, the Americans made a countermove from their side, but by May 6, almost all of the water had drained out of the heavily damaged dam and plans for an assault began. On that same day, Fort Moultrie had surrendered.
On May 8, Clinton called for unconditional surrender from Lincoln, but Lincoln again tried to negotiate for honors of war.
On May 11, the British fired red-hot shot that burned several homes before Lincoln finally called for parlay and to negotiate terms for surrender. The final terms dictated that the entire Continental force captured were prisoners of war.
On May 12, the actual surrender took place with Lincoln leading a ragged bunch of soldiers out of the city.
The senior officers, including Lincoln, eventually were exchanged for British officers in American hands. For all others in the Continental army, a long stay on prison boats in Charleston Harbor was the result, where sickness and disease would ravage them. The defeat left no Continental Army in the South and the country wide open for British taking. Even before Lincoln surrendered, the Continental Congress had already appointed Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates to replace him.
The British quickly established outposts in a semicircle from Georgetown to Augusta, Georgia, with positions at Camden, Ninety-Six, Cheraw, Rocky Mount and Hanging Rock in between. Parole was offered to back country rebels and many accepted, including Andrew Pickens. Soon after securing Charleston, Clinton gave command of the Southern Theatre to Cornwallis and on June 5, he sailed north back to New York.
Clinton's one order to Cornwallis before he left, was to maintain possession of Charleston above all else. Cornwallis was not to move into North Carolina if it jeopordized this holding. Clinton also had ordered that all militia and civilians be released from their parole. But in addition, they must take an oath to the Crown and be at ready to serve when called upon by His Majesty's government. This addition angered many of the locals and led to many deserting or ignoring the order and terms of their parole.
Meanwhile an active and bitter partisan warfare begun. The British advance had been marked by more than the usual destruction of war; the Loyalists rose to arms; the Whig population scattered and without much organization formed groups of riflemen and mounted troopers to harass the enemy. Little mercy was shown on either side. On April 14, 1780, Colonel Banastre Tarleton decimated a detachment of Lincoln's cavalry and followed it up by practically destroying Buford's Virginia regiment near the North Carolina border.