The siege of Charleston marked the commencement of major British operations in the South during the Revolutionary War. Although they threatened Sullivan’s Island in 1776 and secured Georgia in 1779, British efforts against the rebellious southern colonies were limited prior to 1780. General Sir Henry Clinton and Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot led a force from New York in December 1779 to attack Charleston. More than ten thousand British soldiers and sailors eventually served in the campaign. Major General Benjamin Lincoln held Charleston with six thousand men. The British landed on Seabrook Island on February 11–12, 1780, marched across Johns and James Islands, moved up the Ashley River, and crossed at Drayton Hall on March 29.
On April 1, British working parties began the first siege parallel. The American fortifications stretched across Charleston Neck between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers; the focal point was a tabby horn-work, a remnant of which remains in Marion Square. On April 8, British warships forced their way past Fort Moultrie, which gave them control of Charleston harbor. Two days later Clinton and Arbuthnot summoned the garrison, offering them the chance to surrender; General Lincoln responded that “duty and inclination” dictated that he defend the city “to the last extremity.” The British commenced bombarding Charleston from their siege-works on April 13, and the two sides exchanged artillery and small arms fire from then until the end of the siege. The besiegers advanced toward Charleston using approach trenches and completed a second parallel on April 17.
Informed by his officers that their fortifications were too weak to hold and provisions were running low, Lincoln called a council of war to discuss their options. Some officers, including Brigadier Generals Lachlan McIntosh and William Moultrie, favored evacuating the army, but civilian officials, led by Lieutenant Governor Christopher Gadsden and Thomas Ferguson of the Privy Council, strongly discouraged the attempt. Ferguson even threatened to turn the civilians of Charleston against them. Ultimately, Lincoln and his officers offered terms of capitulation that would give the British the city and allow the American army to retreat to the backcountry. Clinton and Arbuthnot adamantly refused these proposals.
The British, meanwhile, endeavored to surround Charleston. On April 14 a force under Banastre Tarleton smashed the American cavalry posted near Moncks Corner, giving the British access to the region east of the Cooper. Clinton sent Lord Cornwallis and a detachment of troops over the Cooper to block American escape attempts. When the Americans evacuated Lempriere’s Point (Hobcaw) and the Royal Navy captured Fort Moultrie, the British effectively enveloped Charleston. The completion of their third parallel allowed them to hammer the city from even closer distance. The city surrendered to the British on May 12, 1780. General Clinton disallowed the honors of war for the rebel army, meaning that they filed out of the city with colors cased and with their drummers forbidden to play a British march. The capture of Lincoln’s army at Charleston was the worst American defeat of the Revolutionary War. The British victory gave them a foothold from which to begin their conquest of the southern states, an effort that eventually failed. In that sense, the triumph against Charleston was the beginning of the end for the British in America.
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Moultrie, William. Memoirs of the American Revolution. 1802. Reprint, New York: New York Times, 1968.
Uhlendorf, Bernhard A., ed. The Siege of Charleston, with an Account of the Province of South Carolina: Diaries and Letters of Hessian Officers from the von Jungkenn Papers in the William L. Clements Library. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1938.
Ward, Christopher. The War of the Revolution. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1952