Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1780

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Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1780

CHARLESTON EXPEDITION OF CLINTON IN 1780. Charleston (called Charles Town in 1780), South Carolina, the most significant port in the southern colonies and one of the wealthiest cities in America, played a role in British strategy throughout the war. Although the 1776 attempt on Sullivan's Island failed, Howe considered an expedition against Charleston in the winter of 1777–1778, and Prevost's feint in the spring of 1779 conceivably could have taken the city. Recognizing its economic and strategic significance, Clinton determined by August 1779 to make another attempt on Charleston.

Delayed by the French move north for operations against Savannah, preparations began in earnest in November 1779. The expeditionary force, numbering eighty-seven-hundred men, embarked from New York on 26 December 1779. The force was conveyed by a fleet of over one hundred transports and warships, commanded by Arbuthnot. Cooperation between the army and the Royal Navy would be critical to reducing Charleston, but the relationship between Clinton and Arbuthnot threatened its success from the start. Receiving word that French ships were wintering in Chesapeake Bay, Arbuthnot suggested attacking them before moving south. Clinton, aware of the Chesapeake region's importance to the rebel war effort, wished to take Charleston first and return to the mid-Atlantic theater later. Arbuthnot abandoned the idea of moving against the French, but this difference of opinion foreshadowed future disagreements between the two commanders.

The winter of 1779–1780 was one of the worst of the eighteenth century, and severe storms buffeted the British fleet as it sailed toward the rendezvous point at Savannah. The weather damaged and sank ships; caused the loss of provisions, horses, and ordnance; and lengthened the voyage. A journey that normally lasted ten days took some vessels five weeks to complete.


Off Savannah, Clinton sent Brigadier General James Paterson ashore to make a feint toward Augusta, while Tarleton was sent to Beaufort to replace cavalry horses lost at sea. Clinton and Arbuthnot haggled over where to land the army, but the question was settled when the admiral sent Captain George Keith Elphinstone to handle the disembarkation. Elphinstone performed to Clinton's satisfaction throughout the Charleston operations.

Sailing into the North Edisto River on 11 February 1780, Elphinstone put ashore Clinton's grenadiers and light infantry that night on Simons (now Seabrook) Island, and the remaining troops landed the following day. Over the next several weeks, Clinton's army encamped on Johns Island, seizing Stono Ferry, and then crossed to James Island on 24 February 1780, where they established positions at Wappoo Bridge on Wappoo Cut and at Fort Johnson.

With the 1776 attempt on Sullivan's Island on his mind, Clinton moved cautiously against Charleston. He preferred the landing in the North Edisto River region because it put an appropriate distance between his army and the rebels in Charleston. The American general Benjamin Lincoln, who had learned of British intentions against the city from captured Royal Navy sailors, declined to sortie against the British, however, deciding instead to mass his force within Charleston's defenses. Rumors of a smallpox epidemic kept South Carolina militia from joining Lincoln, and he believed he lacked adequate numbers to attack the British on their march. He feared that if he sallied forth from the town, the British would attack it in his absence. Instead, he sent Brigadier General William Moultrie and Lieutenant Colonel Francis Marion to hold Bacon's Bridge on the Ashley River, while his cavalry harassed the British as they moved toward Charleston.


Clinton could advance no further until Arbuthnot crossed Charleston Bar, a large sandbank that ran from Sullivan's Island, above the harbor entrance, to Lighthouse Island several miles below it. The Bar represented a strong natural defensive obstacle to enemy warships since vessels could only cross it via a few shallow channels; the primary avenue for larger ships, the Ship Channel, was only twenty feet deep at high tide. The British men of war drafted too deeply to clear this channel, and even the forty-four-gun ships would have to have stores and guns removed before they could sail through it.

Lincoln, recognizing the Bar's strategic importance, urged Commodore Abraham Whipple, who commanded American naval forces in Charleston, to take up a position to defend it. Lincoln argued for a station inside the Bar blocking the Ship Channel. By keeping the Royal Navy outside the harbor, he was confident that the Americans could limit the British to a landside assault on the town. The cautious Whipple, outclassed by Arbuthnot in number and size of warships and uncertain of the tricky currents in the waters surrounding the Bar, was reluctant to do so. Backed by his captains, he argued that his ships would be more effective acting in concert with Fort Moultrie on the southern end of Sullivan's Island. Lincoln was displeased, but he consented to a station near the fort.

Arbuthnot took advantage of this opportunity on 20 March 1780, crossing the Bar uncontested with the Renown (fifty guns), the Roebuck (forty-four guns), the Romulus (forty-four guns), four frigates, a sloop of war, and several smaller vessels. When Whipple recognized that the Renown was inside the Bar, he insisted to Lincoln that his vessels could not maintain their current station and asked that he be allowed to moor them in the Cooper River instead. Frustrated, Lincoln again consented to the change in position, and Whipple's forces were effectively removed from action for the remainder of the campaign. The Renown's ability to clear the Bar should not have surprised Whipple, since the British had sailed a fifty-gun ship over it for operations against Sullivan's Island in 1776. In any event, this failure to properly defend the Bar and harbor was a critical error in the American defense of Charleston. Whipple not only surrendered Charleston's key natural defensive obstacle without a fight, but he freed the Royal Navy to send more direct assistance to Clinton.


The crossing of the Bar enabled Arbuthnot to send boats and sailors to Clinton's army for the advance to Charleston. Clinton, meanwhile, ordered Paterson to join him from Georgia so they would have sufficient men to maintain the line of communication with James Island and the Royal Navy when the move was made to the Charleston Peninsula. As with the initial landing, Clinton wished to cross the Ashley River, where his troops would be least vulnerable to attack by the rebels. He chose Drayton Hall, thirteen miles from the city. There, on 29 March 1780, Royal Navy flatboats under Elphinstone carried them over the river. On the opposite bank, they met only a few scattered shots from American horsemen.

The following day, the British army advanced toward Charleston; in the vanguard were the light infantry and jägers, who would play a crucial role in the siege. Lincoln sent his own light troops, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, to reconnoiter and prevent the British from approaching the city too quickly. The two sides skirmished throughout the day before Laurens withdrew to the American lines, each side suffering a few casualties. Encamping two miles from the city, Clinton's army opened its siegeworks on Charleston Neck on the night of 1 April 1780, from eight hundred to one thousand yards from the American defenses.

On 8 April 1780, Arbuthnot in the Roebuck led the Romulus, the Renown, his frigates, the sloop of war Sandwich, and two transports past Fort Moultrie. Although a third transport was lost when it ran aground and some vessels received damage from the fort's guns, in ninety minutes Arbuthnot sailed his flotilla safely to the waters off Fort Johnson on James Island. There, they had an anchorage out of range of American guns in the city and on Sullivan's Island. The Royal Navy had now cut off Charleston by sea, and the British were in position to surround the garrison.

Clinton and Arbuthnot summoned the garrison on 10 April 1780. When Lincoln immediately rejected their demand for surrender, they pressed on with the siege, and their batteries on the neck opened on 13 April.


Clinton wished to completely invest Charleston. Securing the Cooper River and the region east of it would box in the Americans. Clinton sent a corps under Lieutenant Colonel James Webster across the Cooper while Arbuthnot, he hoped, would push ships into that river.

Reaching Goose Creek by 13 April, Webster detached Tarleton to attack the rebel cavalry. Lincoln had posted his cavalry, under Brigadier General Isaac Huger, outside Charleston to harass the British and keep open the line of communication with the South Carolina backcountry. Huger's force consisted of several regiments of horse, all commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William Washington, and a detachment of North Carolina militia. The cavalry arm was one of the few advantages that Lincoln held over Clinton at the outset of the campaign. Not only did the American cavalry outnumber the British, but many of the British dragoon horses had been lost on the stormy voyage from New York, and the mounts collected since were inferior to those of the rebels. Tarleton ambushed the Americans at Biggin's Bridge near Moncks Corner on 14 April and inflicted a severe defeat on them. The British success opened the door to the region east of the Cooper River, providing the opportunity to cut off the garrison.

Reinforcements from New York arrived on 18 April, allowing Clinton to send additional troops east of the Cooper. He also appointed Cornwallis to command this strengthened corps. He anticipated that Cornwallis would block routes in and out of Charleston and cooperate with the Royal Navy when Arbuthnot brought vessels into the Cooper River. Arbuthnot, despite promises to Clinton, did not act vigorously to make such an attempt. Clinton became increasingly frustrated as no action was taken despite his pleas to the admiral. Arbuthnot was reluctant to risk ships for the endeavor. The Americans sank hulks in the main channel leading into the Cooper River to prevent British access, while the Hog Island Channel on the Mount Pleasant side, though open, was narrow and difficult to navigate. Lincoln's men, meanwhile, constructed a battery at Haddrell's Point specifically to cover the entrance to Hog Island Channel.

In addition to the Haddrell's Point battery, the Americans held Fort Moultrie and a strong redoubt at Lempriere's Point. Fort Moultrie's significance had lessened when the Royal Navy pushed into the harbor on 8 April, but Lempriere's, located near the confluence of the Wando and Cooper Rivers, kept open the door to the South Carolina backcountry, providing an avenue of escape for the American army. Although the British had a substantial force east of the Cooper, Cornwallis admitted that it would be relatively easy for an evacuating American force without cannon or baggage to slip by them.

Clinton feared that the garrison could escape via Lempriere's Point, but he believed it too formidable for Cornwallis to assault. Arbuthnot's foot-dragging made assistance from the Royal Navy doubtful. Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Francois Malmedy, the position consisted of a redoubt with six eighteen-pounders and a number of smaller fieldpieces. With Malmedy were one hundred Continentals and two hundred North Carolina militia. Lincoln at one point sent Laurens and the light infantry to Lempriere's but withdrew them as the British pushed their siegeworks closer to the American defenses on the neck.

On 27 April, information reached Malmedy that Cornwallis was approaching his position at Lempriere's Point in force, and the French officer hastily spiked his guns and evacuated the garrison to Charleston. Ironically, Cornwallis was making no such move, having contented himself with patrolling the region east of the Cooper River to forestall an American escape. The Royal Navy took possession of the fort the next day.

Encouraged by Lincoln to leave Charleston to ensure the continuance of "civil authority" and to raise the back-country militia, Governor John Rutledge had departed on 13 April. Although the loss of Lempriere's Point made it more difficult to approach the city, Lincoln still hoped that reinforcements could reach the garrison. Rutledge met with little success in South Carolina, but a detachment of Virginia Continentals under Colonel Abraham Buford was marching to assist the garrison. Moreover, the American cavalry, now commanded by Colonel Anthony Walton White, who arrived in the state with a few additional dragoons, had regrouped after the disaster at Moncks Corner.

White crossed the Santee River on 5 May; four miles north of Awendaw Bridge on the road leading to Charleston, they captured eighteen men from a British foraging party. Falling back toward the Santee the following day, White's cavalrymen were ambushed by Tarleton at Lenud's Ferry. As Cornwallis accurately pointed out, "this stroke will have totally demolished their cavalry." The British now faced little threat outside the American siegeworks.

Despite close investment by the British, Lincoln and his officers resolved to continue the defense. Clinton rejected their request for much too generous terms on 21 April, and he now anxiously believed his troops would be forced to storm the rebel works. Arbuthnot, who had repeatedly ignored Clinton's requests to push vessels into the Cooper River, moved against Fort Moultrie, which he captured on 7 May. This success and the victory over the American cavalry at Lenud's Ferry gave the British commanders another opportunity to summon the garrison.

Making note of these defeats, Clinton and Arbuthnot again offered Lincoln an opportunity to surrender on 8 May. Virtually surrounded and with no hope of reinforcement, Lincoln acceded to negotiations. Talks broke down over the prisoner-of-war status of the American militia and the siege continued until 11 May, when Lincoln capitulated. The garrison marched out on 12 May.


The victory at Charleston was the greatest of the war for the British. They took possession of the most important city in the southern colonies and captured six thousand men, four hundred cannon, and over five thousand muskets with minimal losses. That is not to say the campaign had been easy. Vicious winter weather upset the expedition at the outset, the relationship between army and Royal Navy commanders was tenuous, and the British faced a determined enemy.

Much could have gone wrong. Had the American navy stopped Arbuthnot at Charleston Bar as Lincoln hoped, it is doubtful that operations would have continued. The cautious Arbuthnot, who had lost a man of war to a sandbar off Savannah early in the expedition, might have balked at further attempts had he lost additional vessels or faced greater enemy resistance. Cooperation between land and sea forces was critical for success. One branch of service could not have succeeded at Charleston without the other. Likewise, had Lincoln taken the initiative and escaped into the backcountry, his army would have provided a rallying point for the state's numerous militia, who would soon have harassed Cornwallis when his troops pushed inland. More skillful handling of the American cavalry and the retention of Lempriere's Point, meanwhile, could have prevented the British from cutting off the city east of the Cooper River and kept open communication with the South Carolina backcountry.

The British avoided these calamities, however, and celebrated the victory. Clinton believed that he had conquered both Carolinas with the capture of the city, but as Cornwallis found, the provinces were far from conquered. Although a tremendous victory for the British, the Charleston expedition, in kicking off major operations in the South (those in Georgia not withstanding), set them on a road that led to Yorktown just seventeen months later.


Clinton departed New York with 8,700 men. A small contingent of these were blown so far off course that they never reached Savannah, and others remained in Georgia. Clinton utilized the remainder in operations against Charleston. The 18 April reinforcement from New York City added 2,600 troops. By the end of the campaign the British army operating against Charleston numbered 10,100 men. Returns showed 76 men killed and 189 wounded from the landing in the North Edisto to the close of the siege.

American strength is more difficult to gauge, since the makeup of Lincoln's army fluctuated throughout the campaign. On the eve of the British landing in South Carolina, Lincoln reported 1,400 Continental infantry and cavalry fit for duty plus 2,250 militia. Many of the North Carolina militia returned home prior to the commencement of the siege, however. Washington sent Lincoln the North Carolina brigade and Virginia line from the main army, but each numbered only just over 700 men by the time they reached Charleston. Clinton reported to Germain that they captured 6,618 men (including 1,000 sailors who had come ashore from rebel ships), but Lincoln's total force was probably closer to 6,000. A July 1780 return of prisoners, which makes allowances for soldiers who joined the British ranks, shows far fewer Continentals accounted for than noted at the end of the siege. Lincoln reported 89 men killed and 138 wounded during the siege. These figures do not include 15 killed and 18 wounded at Moncks Corner and 41 killed and wounded at Lenud's Ferry.

With regard to naval forces, Arbuthnot initially commanded five ships of the line, a fifty-gun ship, two forty-fours, four frigates, and two sloops of war. One ship of the line, the Defiance, was destroyed in a storm off Savannah. British naval personnel numbered forty-five hundred men. Operations against Charleston cost the Royal Navy twenty-three killed and twenty-eight wounded.

Whipple brought with him to Charleston three frigates of the Continental Navy and a sloop of war. Of the frigates, the Queen of France was in such poor shape that she was sunk to block the channel between Charleston and Shutes Folly. The South Carolina state navy contributed a frigate, two French transports that had been converted into warships, two brigs, and several smaller vessels. A number of these shared the same fate as the Queen of France. The Royal Navy captured those not sunk.

SEE ALSO Charleston Siege of 1780; Fort Moultrie, South Carolina (7 May 1780); Lenud's Ferry, South Carolina; Monck's Corner, South Carolina.


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Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1780

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