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Charleston in The American Revolution

Feb 11, 1780 - Feb 12, 1780

Having failed to crush the American rebellion in the northern colonies, the British decided in late 1778 to concentrate their efforts in the South.  There were more loyalists in South Carolina and Georgia, they believed; if these were rallied and organized, they could help bring the rest of the colonies under control. Therefore, General Henry Clinton was ordered to send an army southward and restore order to these most southern colonies 

The first step in this southern strategy proved easy. In December 1788, transport ships carried Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell and 3500 men to Georgia, landing fifteen miles below Savannah.  On 29 December, they stormed the town and quickly routed the 1000 undisciplined militia raised for its defense.

But the greater prize and more formidable challenge lay about 100 miles to the north: Charleston, South Carolina.  The city conjured up bad memories for Clinton. In June 1776, he had plotted to take this city—and with eight warships and 30 transports filled with well-trained British regulars, he anticipated few problems.  To enter the city’s harbor, these ships would have to pass through a narrow channel guarded by Sullivan Island.  But the island’s fort was not yet completed; an entire wall had not been constructed. 

The British fleet arrived on 4 June, but for three weeks bad weather prevented the ships from approaching the harbor entrance.  This gave militia from North Carolina and Virginia time to reach the threatened city.  Six-thousand Americans were therefore poised to defend Charleston by 28 June when the winds died, allowing the British to attack.  But at this point, the half completed fort on Sullivan Island proved remarkably resilient. As British ships launched a massive barrage, the fort’s still-green palmetto logs simply caught the hurling balls like a well-padded catcher’s glove. Meanwhile, American canons took a terrible toll on the British ships, especially those that ran aground on the shallow harbor entrance.  Finally, Clinton withdrew—no doubt hoping to never see Sullivan Island again.

But in 1780, Clinton muscled up and vowed to take the city to cap Britain’s new southern strategy. This time he sent more men—14,000 (more than three times the Continentals and militia guarding the city).    And rather than attack by sea, he opted to land below the city, march to its edge, and employ the classic strategy of the siege.

On 11 February Clinton’s troops landed south of Charleston and began marching toward the city.  On 1 April, British troops began to dig a huge trench about 800 yards from the city’s defensive fortifications. This would be the first of the many that would bring them closer and closer to the city’s barricades. The work was incredibly slow and dangerous.  America artillery fired everything they could find—broken shovels, small hatchets, irons, locks, and glass.  The British responded with more conventional but equally deadly ammunition.  

This artillery exchange took a physical and psychic toll on both sides.  With construction proceeding at a snail’s pace, Clinton worried about the morale among his hatchet and shovel-shocked troops. But he was not interested in advancing much faster.  Clinton hoped that the local population would also be unnerved by the relentless advance of his mole-army and therefore demand that city officials surrender the city. Moreover, since the primary purpose of the campaign was to rally southern loyalists, a damaging invasion of the city was the last thing Clinton wanted.

Ultimately, Clinton’s plan worked.  By mid-May the armies could practically touch one another.  One last shelling broke the spirit of the townspeople and they demanded that the city be surrendered. Hoping to win southern hearts and minds, Clinton paroled all of the American militiamen.  But the 2500 Continentals engaged in the city’s defense were taken prisoner. 

Charleston was a brutal blow to the American effort, probably the most severe defeat since the Battle of New York. More than an army was lost; many soft-Patriots and fence-straddlers in the Deep South concluded that the war was over and accepted Clinton’s offer of clemency in return for a pledge of loyalty to the Crown. Tory militia were inspired to join the British ranks and increase their attack on their Patriot counterparts. In other words, the victory achieved much of what British policymakers had hoped it would. 

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