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Charleston, Siege of

Charleston, Siege of (1780).In June 1776, early in the Revolutionary War, a British expedition under Sir Henry Clinton failed to seize Charleston, South Carolina's principal port and the largest city in the South. Less than four years later, Clinton returned with overwhelming force and a plan to make the South the centerpiece of British strategy to subdue the colonies. France's recognition of American independence and its declaration of war on Britain in May 1778 altered the character of the war, turning a colonial revolt into a worldwide war. Britain, seeking to maximize results on its now over‐stretched resources, intended to use the army to eliminate rebel activity and reestablish royal authority, then turn control over to the loyalists and move on to repeat the process against rebels further north.

This southern strategy began well. Leaving 10,000 men to defend New York, Clinton sailed south with about 8,700 men. Despite damage caused by a storm en route, he landed 6,000 men thirty miles south of Charleston on 12 February 1780. The remaining troops rejoined him in late March, and another 2,500 men arrived from New York in late April. Benjamin Lincoln initially defended Charleston with 1,600 South Carolina and Virginia Continentals and 2,000 militia; 1,500 North Carolina and Virginia Continentals soon reinforced them. Conserving his army, Clinton moved methodically to lay siege, giving Lincoln time to withdraw; political considerations, however, dictated that Lincoln defend the city. The British began investing Charleston on 1 April, and cut off the last escape route on 14 April. With no hope of timely relief and local civilian leaders clamoring to save their city from further damage, Lincoln surrendered on 12 May. It was the largest disaster suffered by any American army during the war.

Clinton followed up his success by defeating the remaining American forces at the battles of the Waxhaws and Camden, ending organized military resistance in South Carolina. Politically, he was less successful. The loyalists, restored to power by a British army they hoped would never leave, refused to treat defeated rebels leniently in return for a renewal of their allegiance. Loyalist abuses rekindled the civil war that nullified Britain's southern strategy and dissipated the fruits of Clinton's greatest victory.


Piers Mackesy , The War for America, 1964.
William B. Willcox , Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, 1964.
David Mattern , Benjamin Lincoln, 1995.

Harold E. Selesky

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