Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1776

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Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1776

CHARLESTON EXPEDITION OF CLINTON IN 1776. During the fall of 1775, even as the British situation in Massachusetts deteriorated, the Ministry started developing plans for a military expedition to the South, initially thinking only of sending arms. Rebel elements in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia drove all four governors to seek shelter on board warships, but their correspondence and the pleas of London merchants and others convinced the government by mid-October that Loyalists could restore authority with the assistance of a respectable force of regulars. The planning started by William Legge Dartmouth was continued by George Sackville Germain when he became American Secretary on 9 November.

The plan gradually evolved as London attempted to take advantage of changing circumstances and adjust to a wide array of mobilization and deployment problems. In final form the expedition consisted of seven infantry regiments from Ireland plus supporting artillery embarked in chartered transports sent from London and escorted by a Royal Navy squadron. All of the troops selected had already been earmarked to reinforce either William Howe or Guy Carleton. Once the force restored order it would turn the southern colonies over to their governors and move on to join Howe. Charles Cornwallis led the troops, Commodore Sir Peter Parker the squadron. As London wanted, on 6 January Howe ordered Henry Clinton to meet the expedition at Cape Fear, North Carolina, and take command.

Clinton left Boston on 20 January with two light companies (from the Fourth and Forty-fourth), and a few officers who were to raise a body of Highland emigrants in North Carolina. His ships included the frigate Mercury, two transports, and a supply vessel. Stopping to confer with Governors Tryon (New York) and Dunmore (Virginia) along the way, he reached Cape Fear on 12 March where Governors William Campbell of South Carolina and Josiah Martin of North Carolina soon joined a growing flotilla.

Parker and Cornwallis should have left Cork in December but did not actually set out until 12 February, and then immediately ran into a storm that drove the convoy back to port. The second try at crossing the Atlantic ran into still more trouble from storms. The badly scattered vessels began trickling into the rendezvous on 19 April; the whole force was not collected at Cape Fear until 15 May. By that point premature Loyalist uprisings in both Carolinas had already gone down to defeat, most visibly at Moores Creek Bridge, North Carolina, 27 February.

Clinton saw no possibility of accomplishing his original mission in time to rejoin Howe for a spring offensive as originally planned. Wanting to do something, however, he favored operations in the Chesapeake, where small, easily maintained outposts might serve as bases for raids and as havens for Loyalists. But when Parker arrived he sent a naval reconnaissance toward Charleston, and on 26 May he talked Clinton into a more ambitious plan. Parker wanted to capture unfinished Fort Sullivan in Charleston harbor and use it as a base for a small garrison supported by a frigate or two before letting the main task force go north. As William Willcox comments, "Clinton surrendered his own scheme, apparently without protest, and fell in with this idea" (Portrait of a General, pp. 84-87). On 30 May the British task force crossed back over the bar and the next day sailed for Charleston.


The defense of Charleston began with a wrangle over authority. The colony's Provincial Congress had raised four full-time regiments of state troops in 1775 and added two more in February 1776, but remained adamant that they were under the exclusive control of the colony. In early January the Continental Congress anticipated that the British might attack Charleston, among other potential targets in the south, and on 27 February it created a separate Southern Department for Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Major General Charles Lee received the command on 1 March and left New York City two days later. On 3 May Brigadier General John Armstrong arrived in Charleston, the first Continental officer to appear. He immediately learned of South Carolina's insistence on its independent status. It took Lee's negotiating skills (he and Brigadier General Robert Howe arrived 9 June) and the presence of the British expedition offshore to persuade them to accept a unified defense. This decision gave Lee their six regiments, plus the Eighth Virginia Regiment, Third North Carolina Regiment, and part of the Second North Carolina Regiment. Including mobilized militia the American total on the day of battle was more than 6,500 rank and file, although only a small percentage were actually engaged.

Charleston's colonial-era defenses had been refurbished and expanded, but the key element was a large bar that lay along on the low, sandy islands—Sullivan's Island on the north and James Island on the south—that formed the shore of the harbor. Once vessels worked their way over the bar, a difficult feat of seamanship, they had to pass one of the forts along the channels of the six-mile passage to the city proper. Fort Johnson, the older work on James Island, mounted twenty heavy guns, with a new twelve-gun battery as an outwork.

South Carolina had not begun building Fort Sullivan on the northern island of the same name until January 1776 as a square redoubt with bastions on each corner. It remained only half-done when the British attacked. A proper seacoast fort of the period should have had stone walls to withstand naval bombardment, but Colonel William Moultrie built with the only materials at hand: parallel walls of palmetto logs were put up, and the sixteen-foot space between them was filled with sand. Only the south and east walls and the two southernmost bastions were finished. They held emplacements for twenty-five guns that ranged in caliber from nine- to twenty-five-pound. The remaining half of the redoubt had been built to a height of only seven feet, so breastworks were erected and six twelve-pounders provided some protection to the rear. The northern tip of the island was three miles from the fort and separated from undefended Long Island (now Isle of Palms) by a narrow gap of water known as the Breach.

Although Moultrie spoke highly in his memoirs of the value of Lee's presence, it would appear that Lee did not have much confidence in the new fort. Moultrie wrote in his Memoirs that, "when he came to Sullivan's Island, he did not like that post at all; he said there was no way to retreat, that the garrison would be sacrificed: nay, he called it a 'slaughter pen,' and wished to withdraw the garrison and give up the post, but President Rutledge insisted it should not be given up." Lee then ordered construction of a floating bridge to permit the garrison's escape across the mile-wide cove, but this improvised affair of planks and hogsheads would not support troops.

Moultrie himself was never "uneasy on not having a retreat because I never imagined that the enemy could force me to that necessity; I always considered myself as able to defend that post against the enemy. I had upwards of 300 riflemen, under Colonel Thompson, of his regiment, Colonel Clark, with 200 North-Carolina regulars, Colonel Horry, with 200 South-Carolina, and the Racoon Company of riflemen, [plus] 50 militia at the point of the island behind the sand hills and myrtle bushes; I had also a small battery with one 18-pounder, and one brass field-piece, 6-pounder, at the same place, which entirely commanded the landing and could begin to fire upon them at 7 or 800 yards before they could attempt to land. Colonel Thompson had orders that if they could not stand the enemy they were to throw themselves into the fort, by which [time] I should have had upwards of 1000 men in a large strong fort, and General Armstrong in my rear with 1500 men, not more than one mile and a half off, with a small arm of the sea between us, that he could have crossed a body of men in boats to my assistance. This was exactly my situation. I therefore felt myself perfectly easy because I never calculated upon Sir Henry Clinton's numbers to be more than 3000 men." Moultrie notes that, in answer to Lee's question as to whether he could maintain the post, he replied, "Yes, I think I can," upon which they discussed it no further.


The Clinton-Parker task force left Cape Fear on 31 May and reached the islands off Charleston the next day. Parker took his time and conducted a careful reconnaissance of the harbor mouth; much more time would be required to get the warships and transports across the bar. The British originally intended to overwhelm Charleston by immediate attack but now realized they would have to conduct more systematic operations. Parker agreed to commit his full force of warships to a bombardment of the fort; Clinton (with the concurrence of Cornwallis) agreed to land on Long Island (Isle of Palms). The troops would then support the naval force by crossing over to Sullivan's Island and hitting the fort from the rear.

Parker finished the naval part of the attack plan on 15 June, and Clinton landed most of his troops on undefended Long Island on 16-18 June. Much to his chagrin, Clinton discovered that his intelligence had made a huge error about the Breach and that it was too deep to be forded. He had only fifteen flatboats to attempt a ferrying operation, making that option unworkable. On 18 June Clinton sent Brigadier General Vaughan to Parker to suggest that the commodore take two regiments on board his ships to use in a direct landing at the end of the bombardment.

Parker planned to attack on 23 June, but adverse winds made him delay for five days. During this period the Americans continued to improve the defenses on Sullivan's Island.


On 28 June at 11 a.m. the British ships went into action. The bomb ketch Thunder opened fire at a range of a mile and a half with two mortars (a 13-inch and a 10-inch); she was supported by the Friendship (16 gun). The Active (28), Bristol (50), Experiment (50), and Solebay (28) anchored 400 to 800 yards south of the fort and opened fire. The Actaeon (28), Sphynx (20), and Syren (28) then formed a second line and started blasting away. After an hour the ships of the second line started moving to new positions west of the fort from which to enfilade its southern face and also to threaten its access to the city. All three ran onto a shoal known as the Middle Ground and became sitting ducks for the American gunners at about the same time that the Thunder's mortars broke down. After several hours the Syren and Sphynx got free but had to withdraw for repairs; the Actaeon could not be moved. Parker's flagship, the Bristol, also suffered enormous damage when a cable was shot away and her stern swung toward the fort.

Moultrie had been visiting Thompson's position on the northern end of Sullivan's Island the morning of 28 June, and across the Breach he could see Clinton's force manning boats as if for an assault. But when he saw Parker's ships preparing to get under way he galloped the three miles back to Fort Sullivan and "ordered the long roll to beat." That day the garrison consisted of about 425 men of Moultrie's Second South Carolina Regiment and twenty-two gunners. Although nervous at first, the defenders settled down and worked the fort's cannon with skill. Moultrie's only problem was insufficient powder.

As it turned out, the construction materials of Fort Sullivan had certain surprisingly good qualities: the spongy palmetto logs did not shatter and splinter like ordinary wood, and the sandy earth of the walls further cushioned the impact of cannon balls and mortar shells. Most of the American casualties resulted from the few shots that came through the embrasures. Despite the punishment the British naval gunners were taking, however, they manned their pieces well. "At one time, 3 or 4 of the men-of-war's broadsides struck the fort at the same instant," wrote Moultrie, and the merlons were given "such a tremor that I was apprehensive that a few more such would tumble them down." Despite the long range, the Thunder "threw her shells in a very good direction; most of them fell within the fort, but we had a morass in the middle that swallowed them up instantly, and those that fell in the sand and in and about the fort were immediately buried so that very few of them bursted amongst us."

Moultrie noted that Lee visited the fort during the action, pointed a few guns, and departed with the words, "Colonel, I see you are doing very well here. You have no occasion for me." He later wrote, as quoted by Moultrie: "The behaviour of the garrison, both men and officers, with Colonel Moultrie at their head, I confess astonished me. It was brave to the last degree. I had no idea that so much coolness and intrepidity could be displayed by a collection of raw recruits."

When a shot struck the flagstaff and the flag fell outside the fort, Sergeant William Jasper went out through an embrasure to retrieve it and put it back into view on an improvised staff. This was more than bravado, because disappearance of the flag could have signaled to the enemy as well as to the thousands of American civilian and soldier spectators that the fort had surrendered.

The firing tapered off at sunset, and with the tide ebbing and his ammunition starting to run out, Parker told his ships to fall back at 9:00 p.m.—all but the marooned Actaeon, which was set on fire by her crew the next morning and abandoned.

As for Clinton's part in the action, he had ended up as a spectator, and with a rather poor seat at that. He had demonstrated toward the island and toward the mainland but could not risk crossing without naval covering fire. When he discovered the next morning what a beating the navy had taken, he could do nothing but make plans for a strategic retreat. His troops remained on Long Island three weeks before embarking (21 July) for New York. Only the Solebay accompanied the transports; Parker's other ships had to remain some time longer for repairs. Clinton's troops reached Sandy Hook on 31 July and joined Howe on Staten Island for the New York Campaign.


Lee reported 10 Americans killed and 22 wounded in Fort Sullivan; Ward's figures are 12 killed, 5 died of wounds, and 20 wounded. Moultrie, the one person in a position to know for sure, gives no figures in his memoirs.

Only the Royal Navy lost men in the attack. According to Parker's official report (Naval Documents, 5:997-1002), British casualties amounted to 64 killed and 141 wounded, but he curiously omitted the Actaeon's losses from his accounting. Experiment and Bristol took most of the casualties and both ships' captains died from their wounds. Parker himself was slightly but painfully wounded.


Until the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, this campaign attracted relatively little scholarly attention. Yet the battle was a humiliating defeat to the British that gave a critical boost to rebel morale. "Britain had worse defeats in the course of the war, but no more egregious fiasco," says Willcox. The southern colonies (which became states on 4 July) remained in rebel hands for three years before the British sent regulars again. During those three years Loyalists in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia had to either leave the country or hide their feelings.

Although the entire British operation rested on a false belief in Loyalist strength, the king's military forces might have had some modest accomplishments if they had been able to get there sooner. The relatively small force Clinton took from Boston was incapable of doing much alone, but in combination with the 2,500 troops of Cornwallis and Parker's fleet it should have been possible to accomplish part of Clinton's mission. Most accounts blame one component or another for being dilatory. The truth was that the technical difficulties of mounting the expedition overwhelmed the British government's cumbersome administrative structure. The British fatally misjudged the harbor and fort conditions, and the Loyalists themselves displayed no common sense and rose prematurely. Their biggest defeat, at Moores Creek Bridge, had lingering effects during the second invasion.

Lord North, Germain, and the king found no fault with Clinton's conduct of the Charleston expedition and gave him private assurances to this effect. A controversy developed, however, when Sir Peter Parker's public letter to the Admiralty charged Clinton with failure to support the naval attack. The published version of Clinton's letter to the secretary of state was so abridged as to omit the portions that would have refuted Parker's contentions. The supersensitive Clinton was embittered by the government's unwillingness to make public their private assurances of his exoneration for the Charleston failure. In the autumn of 1776 his friends in the House of Commons vigorously attacked the government on this matter; upon his return to England in the spring of 1777 he was given the Order of the Bath to reestablish his prestige.

In a sense the Americans damaged themselves by winning such a lopsided victory. Political leaders in the Carolinas and Georgia misread the technicality that few "Continental" troops participated, and assumed that their militia resources and fortifications would be ample for their defense. Although they did raise (or turn over) Continentals, they never furnished them with adequate support or replacements. And they paid the price.

SEE ALSO Jasper, William; Merlon; Moores Creek Bridge; New York Campaign; South Carolina Line; Southern Theater, Military Operations in.


Clinton, Sir Henry. The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton's Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents. Edited by William B. Willcox. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1971.

Gordon, John W. South Carolina and the American Revolution: A Battlefield History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.

Lipscomb, Terry W. The Carolina Lowcountry, April 1775–June 1776 and the Battle of Fort Moultrie. 2d ed. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1994.

Moultrie, William. Memoirs of the American Revolution. 1802. Reprint, New York: New York Times, 1968.

Naval Documents of the American Revolution. Edited by William B. Clark. Vol. 5, edited by William J. Morgan. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964–1996.

Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2000.

Willcox, William B. Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1964.

                          revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.

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Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1776

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