Charleston Raid of Prevost
Charleston Raid of Prevost
CHARLESTON RAID OF PREVOST. 11-12 May 1779. Shortly after he replaced Robert Howe as commander of the Southern Department in December 1778, Major General Benjamin Lincoln resolved to drive the British from Georgia. Reinforced by militia in spring 1779, he devised a plan to march up the Savannah River, cross to Augusta, and move into the Georgia backcountry. Leaving twelve hundred men under Brigadier General William Moultrie at Black Swamp and Purisburgh, Lincoln arrived at Augusta on 29 April 1779 with four thousand men, including the bulk of his Continentals.
Rather than chase Lincoln, Major General Augustine Prevost determined to move into South Carolina to compel the American commander to abandon the Georgia enterprise and to collect supplies for his army. He crossed the Savannah River with a force of three thousand men. Outnumbered, Moultrie retreated toward Charleston, destroying bridges over the numerous rivers on his route. As the Americans fell back, Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens skirmished with the British briefly, and—unwisely in Moultrie's opinion—at Coosawhatchie on 3 May, but Moultrie successfully reached Charleston on 7 May. He was joined there by a force of militia brought into the city by Governor John Rutledge and Pulaski's Legion, which had arrived from Washington's army.
The ease with which his army advanced and the persuasions of South Carolina Loyalists convinced Prevost to move against Charleston. His vanguard, commanded by his brother, Lieutenant Colonel Marc Prevost, crossed the Ashley River on 11 May and marched toward the city. Brigadier General Pulaski, who had arrived only days before, sallied out to meet them with his Legion cavalry and infantry and a few militia. Pulaski intended to draw the British into an ambuscade, but this stratagem failed when some of his troops, hiding behind a breast-work, showed themselves too soon. Prevost's men drove off Pulaski, inflicting severe casualties on his detachment.
The arrival of the British force outside Charleston threw the inhabitants into a panic. The mistaken belief that enemy troops were immediately outside the gates the night of 11 May caused a general fire of musketry and artillery all along the lines and resulted in the killing or wounding of thirteen Americans who were attempting to fill a gap in the abatis. Among those killed was Major Benjamin Huger. Despite the apprehensions of many in the garrison, Moultrie was confident that they could hold out against the British. He had at least thirty-two hundred men protected by earthworks against Prevost's three thousand. Moreover, Moultrie had written Lincoln repeatedly since the British crossed the Savannah, and he expected the latter's return at any moment. Others in the town were not so sanguine, however. Reports had reached Charleston that put British numbers at from seven thousand to eight thousand; Governor Rutledge was among those who accepted these greatly exaggerated figures.
Rutledge and the South Carolina Privy Council urged Moultrie to send a letter to the enemy asking what terms would be granted if the Americans capitulated. Prevost had given his brother, Lieutenant Colonel Prevost, the authority to summon the town. The latter responded to the Americans that any of the garrison who did not accept the king's peace and protection would be considered prisoners of war.
Despite the concerns of Rutledge and the Privy Council, Moultrie and his officers argued vehemently that they should hold out. The civilian officials prevailed, however, and they had Moultrie send a proposal to Prevost that offered South Carolina's neutrality in exchange for the security of Charleston. The question of whether the state would belong to the United States or Great Britain at the end of the war would be determined by the peace treaty.
When the message was sent to Lieutenant Colonel Prevost on 12 May, he replied that he had not come in a legislative capacity and that his business was with General Moultrie as military commander and not with Governor Rutledge. The receipt of these words in Charleston spurred Moultrie to take charge. Meeting with his officers, the governor, and the Privy Council, he asserted that they would "fight it out." The truce at an end, he immediately issued orders to the men on the lines to prepare to defend the city.
On the following morning, 13 May, the garrison discovered, with great surprise, that the British had withdrawn. Pulaski attempted to pursue the retreating force, but he found that it had safely reached James Island southwest of Charleston.
By 6 May, Lincoln was rushing back down the Savannah River to relieve Charleston. The British intercepted a letter indicating his return, which influenced Prevost's decision to withdraw. His lack of siege artillery and a cooperating naval force also swayed him. Prevost probably could not have taken Charleston with the means he had available, but he gambled in summoning the town in the same way he gambled in moving into South Carolina rather than opposing Lincoln in the Georgia backcountry. The roll of the dice of crossing the Savannah into South Carolina paid off in that Lincoln was compelled to abandon the expedition against Georgia. Given this success, Prevost's failure to take Charleston mattered little.
Some South Carolinians, meanwhile, harshly criticized Lincoln for going into Georgia and leaving the state undefended. Lincoln was sensitive to these comments and requested permission to resign. The Continental Congress accepted his request, but Moultrie and Rutledge convinced him to stay. With the controversy fresh in his mind, Lincoln, for better or for worse, would keep his troops in the city when the British returned in 1780.
After remaining on James Island several days, Prevost moved his army to Johns Island and fell back to the Beaufort area beginning 16 June. Lincoln attacked his rear guard at Stono Ferry on 20 June in a bloody defeat for the Americans that brought a close to the campaign.
revised by Carl P. Borick