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Charleston Siege of 1780

Charleston Siege of 1780

CHARLESTON SIEGE OF 1780. The six-week British siege of Charleston represented the longest formal siege of the war. It was also the largest military operation in South Carolina.


Charleston lies on a peninsula at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, which meet to form its harbor. With fewer soldiers than the British, Major General Benjamin Lincoln elected to concentrate the bulk of his troops in defense works just outside the town. The focal point of the American fortifications was a tabby and masonry hornwork that lay astride the main road into the city. Late in the siege, Lincoln's engineers enclosed this hornwork to form a "citadel" and constructed two covering redoubts, one on each flank.

In front of the hornwork, the main defense line, a parapet interspersed with redans and batteries ran across Charleston Neck from the Ashley River on the left to the Cooper River on the right. Before the parapet was a double-picketed ditch and, beyond that, two rows of abatis. The outer defense consisted of a canal, or wet ditch, eighteen feet across and from six to eight feet deep, fed by a tidal creek on the Cooper River. The canal extended across the peninsula stopping short of the Ashley. The Americans could control the depth of the canal by means of a dam with sluices on the Cooper. The main line inclined forward on the American right to protect the dam, and an advanced redoubt covered the canal on the left. Chevaux de frise were sunk in the tidal creeks, which cut into the neck, and filled gaps in the line. Wolf traps, holes with stakes in their floors, lay between the canal and main defense line.

The Americans had constructed an effective defense in depth. To take Charleston, the British would have to force the city's surrender, or alternatively they would have to clear the canal, fight through lines of abatis and chevaux de frise, avoid falling into the wolf traps, struggle through the double-picketed ditch, and then scramble up the parapet, all under fire from rebel soldiers. Even then the Americans would be in possession of the hornwork and supporting redoubts.


Manning his fortifications, Lincoln had twenty-seven hundred Continentals and two thousand militia. The Continentals included those of South Carolina, North Carolina, and a detachment of Virginians. Shortly after the siege began, an additional seven hundred Virginia Continentals arrived in Charleston, and one thousand sailors from the Continental and South Carolina navies came ashore to serve in the lines.

At the outset of the siege, Clinton's army of 7,500 men consisted of two battalions of light infantry; two battalions of British grenadiers; four battalions of Hessian grenadiers; the 7th, 23rd, 33rd, 63rd, 64th, and 71st Regiments of Foot; a detachment of the Royal Artillery; Regiment von Huyn; a detachment of jägers; and the British Legion (Cathcart's), American Volunteers (Ferguson's Corps), New York Volunteers, North Carolina Volunteers, and South Carolina Royalists. Most had embarked at New York, but a number of the provincial units had marched from Savannah with Paterson. On 18 April a reinforcement arrived from New York, consisting of the 42nd Regiment (Black Watch), Regiment von Dittfurth, the Queen's Rangers, the Prince of Wales Regiment (Brown's Corps), and the Volunteers of Ireland. This gave Clinton another 2,600 men.


On the night of 1 April 1780, Clinton sent out fifteen hundred laborers and an equivalent number as a covering party to begin the first parallel. By the following morning, the British had constructed three redoubts, connected by a trench, from eight hundred to a thousand yards from the Charleston defenses. The Americans were shocked that the British had moved so quickly. Still hauling guns into position, they fired from thirty to forty cannon shots at the new earthworks throughout the day.

Major James Moncrief planned six fortifications for the first parallel, anchored on the left by a battery to be constructed on Hampstead Hill, a small rise overlooking the otherwise flat terrain before the city. British troops seized this high ground on the Cooper River on the night of 3 April and established the battery. Recognizing the position's significance, Clinton expected a sortie against it. Lincoln sent the Continental sloop of war Ranger up the Cooper to bombard the work. Ranger scored a number of hits on it, but British artillerists further upriver used a howitzer and twenty-four-pounder to drive the vessel off. Lincoln planned an assault against the fortification but demurred when he realized the British had enclosed it.

American artillery harassed British working parties daily as they pressed on with the first parallel. From 4-5 April alone, rebel cannon threw 573 shots at the besiegers. Although causing little damage and few casualties, the bombardment unnerved British laborers. To relieve the pressure, Clinton had a battery west of the Ashley River and galleys posted in the Ashley fired into the town. This action terrorized civilians but did little to check the American guns. On 7 April an expected reinforcement of seven hundred Virginia Continentals arrived to further bolster the garrison.

While the army had successfully blockaded Charleston on the neck, Clinton wished to invest Charleston completely. Arbuthnot's ships had lain anchor in Five Fathom Hole since crossing the bar on 20 March. On 8 April 1780, Arbuthnot in the Roebuck (forty-four guns) led the Romulus (forty-four guns), the Renown (fifty guns), four frigates, the sloop of war Sandwich, and two transports past Fort Moultrie. Although a third transport ran aground and had to be abandoned, the other vessels received only minor damage and anchored safely near British-held Fort Johnson on James Island. The Royal Navy now controlled the harbor.

Arbuthnot went ashore to consult with Clinton, and the two commanders agreed to summon the garrison even though batteries in the first parallel were incomplete. Major Crosby delivered the message on 10 April. Without consulting his officers, Lincoln responded that sixty days had passed since British intentions were known, which had given him time to abandon the city, but that he intended to hold it to the last extremity.


Lincoln called a council of war on the morning of 13 April to discuss the critical situation of the garrison. He outlined to his senior officers the unfavorable state of their troops, provisions, stores, and artillery. His engineers, meanwhile, had little faith in their defensive works. Brigadier General Lachlan McIntosh argued that they should at least evacuate the Continentals from Charleston. The meeting was interrupted, however, by the opening of the British batteries in the first parallel.

Throughout the day and into the night, British guns bombarded the American lines and the city. Lincoln's artillerymen returned the favor, and the two sides dueled until midnight. Never before had Charleston seen such a cannonade. The battery on Hampstead Hill propelled hot shot into the town, starting several fires, and there were a number civilian casualties. Artillery firing continued almost daily for the next four weeks.

Before the first parallel was completed, British working parties commenced an approach toward a second parallel. They had constructed a battery 150 yards in front of the left of the first parallel on 9 April, connected to the parallel by a trench. From this position, they pushed forward to a second parallel just 750 feet from the American canal. When American batteries and riflemen directed their fire against laborers in this vicinity, the British began a new approach from the right of the first parallel. They excavated another section of the second parallel at the head of this sap and connected the two sections on 17 April. Ignoring the method espoused by Vauban, Moncrief had his men dig the approaches directly at the enemy lines, rather than in a zigzag fashion, which allowed the Americans to fire down the length of the saps.

Tarleton's victory at Moncks Corner on 14 April and the subsequent British advance into the region east of the Cooper threatened the garrison's access to the South Carolina backcountry. The besieging army's progress on the neck, meanwhile, was evident. On 20 April, Lincoln convened another council of war to weigh options. Once again describing the gloomy state of affairs, he asked the officers what measures they should pursue under the circumstances. With a British force east of the Cooper, evacuation through that region was still possible but now more difficult. Still, General McIntosh thought it the best course of action. Others, led by Colonel Laumoy, a French engineer, argued for offering terms of capitulation.

When Lieutenant Governor Christopher Gadsden, chief civilian official in Charleston, entered, Lincoln allowed him to participate in the council. Gadsden insisted they postpone further discussion until he consulted the Privy Council. When they reconvened, Gadsden returned with Benjamin Cattell, Thomas Ferguson, Richard Hutson, and David Ramsay of the Privy Council. Gadsden browbeat the officers, insisting that "the militia were willing to live on rice alone" rather than surrender and even "old women … traveled the streets without fear or dread" of British shot. Ferguson was more direct. He noticed that the army had collected boats, ostensibly for the purpose of evacuating the city. Ferguson asserted that if the Continentals attempted to withdraw from the town, he would open the gates for the British and assist them in attacking Lincoln's soldiers as they boarded the boats. Under this pressure, Lincoln and his officers abandoned the idea of escaping the city.

The following day, 21 April, the council of war determined to offer honorable terms of capitulation. The terms Lincoln put forth were unrealistic, however, including articles allowing all American troops and ships to withdraw unmolested from the city. After a brief truce, Clinton and Arbuthnot rejected the proposal.


While strengthening and constructing batteries in the second parallel, British working parties pressed on toward a third. The third parallel, when completed, consisted of two unconnected sections. On the British left, engineers extended the parallel toward the dam that allowed the defenders to control the water depth in the canal.

As the British advanced their approaches and parallels, the garrison offered stiff resistance, and American solid shot, grapeshot, and small arms took their toll. Work slowed after completion of the second parallel because of the increasing proximity to the Charleston lines. Still, the Americans had thus far failed to sortie against the besieging army. This inactivity may have caught the British off guard when two hundred South Carolina and Virginia Continentals, led by Lieutenant Colonel William Henderson, attacked the third parallel shortly before daybreak on 24 April. A heavy fire from the second parallel eventually compelled Henderson to retreat, but not before his detachment had killed or wounded eight men and captured twelve. American losses were Captain Thomas Moultrie killed and two wounded.

The sortie's impact extended to the next evening. When nervous American sentries fired muskets into the darkness, artillery and small arms erupted from the garrison. Assuming another sortie was under way, British and Hessian soldiers in the third parallel bolted for the rear. Troops posted in the second parallel mistook the retreating soldiers for advancing rebels and opened up on them. Before the officers discovered what had happened, at least twenty men had been killed or wounded. Beginning on 27 April, the Americans placed burning barrels of turpentine before their lines each night, illuminating the space between the armies and ensuring there would be no further sorties or false alarms.

When Brigadier General Duportail arrived in Charleston on 24 April, he offered a grim assessment of the American defenses. He asserted that the works were untenable and advised an evacuation. Duportail had missed the council of war on 20 April and was unfamiliar with the prevailing political considerations. Hence, Lincoln called another council on 26 April. The officers concluded unanimously that the British force east of the Cooper River and the civil authority's opposition made such a move impracticable. Any possibility of escape ended the next evening when Colonel Malmedy abandoned Lempriere's Point, gateway to the backcountry.

By 1 May, British working parties had pushed a sap to the canal and opened a trench to begin draining it. The wet ditch was emptied by 6 May, and the British had thereby breached the first layer of the American defenses. The primary battery in the third parallel, meanwhile, played on the hornwork. The area between the lines became a noman's-land, and both sides reported increased casualties as the siege dragged on. Artillery pounded fortifications, and riflemen on both sides targeted individual soldiers. The Hessian jägers were particularly effective in this duel, directing their fire at the American embrasures and preventing artillerymen from manning their guns in daylight. On 24 April, a jäger shot and killed Colonel Richard Parker, the highest-ranking officer to die in the siege, when he peered over the parapet.

As his men toiled in the trenches, Clinton worried that the rebels would not capitulate and that his men would have to storm their fortifications. The American situation was becoming more precarious, however. The presence of Cornwallis's force east of the Cooper and the loss of Lempriere's Point made it nearly impossible to transport large quantities of supplies into the town. The garrison possessed sufficient rice stores to last several weeks, but meat was becoming scarce. On 4 May the meat ration was reduced to six ounces per man, and four days later an officer reported that no meat was being issued. Another officer noted that the British taunted them by firing into the town shells charged with rice and sugar. Parties of soldiers sent among the civilians to locate surplus food turned up little.


The loss of Fort Moultrie to the Royal Navy on 7 May was a serious blow to morale in the city. This success and Tarleton's victory at Lenud's Ferry once again gave Clinton the opportunity to summon the garrison. On the morning of 8 May, Clinton sent a message to Lincoln suggesting that he capitulate. A truce extended into the next day as councils of war were called, options discussed, and messages sent back and forth.

Negotiations broke down over the status of the militia in the event of surrender. Clinton easily accepted Lincoln's offer of the Continentals as prisoners of war, but the American commander also proposed that the militia be allowed to return to their homes. Clinton acknowledged that they could do so but only as prisoners of war on parole. He also objected to other issues involving the citizens of Charleston, and he did not believe the Americans worthy of the honors of war. He rejected Lincoln's stipulation that the defenders march out of their works with shouldered arms, drums beating, and colors flying. He maintained that when the rebel army delivered up its arms, their colors were to be cased and their drums were not to beat a British march.

Lincoln would not accept Clinton's changes and talks ended. Shortly after nine p.m. on 9 May, American soldiers gave three cheers and their batteries commenced firing. The two sides furiously cannonaded each other throughout the night and into the next day. British artillerymen sent 469 rounds of solid shot and 345 shells into the rebel works and the city, the largest twenty-four-hour total during the siege.

American defiance proved short-lived, however. Lincoln received several petitions from the militia in garrison which indicated that they understood that negotiations with Clinton and Arbuthnot had broken down over their status as prisoners of war on parole. The militiamen now informed Lincoln that terms proposed by the British commanders were acceptable to them. Moreover, Lieutenant Governor Gadsden wrote him on 11 May advising the same. Lincoln called a final council of war; with the exception of General Duportail, the council voted to accede to British terms.

At two p.m. on 12 May, two companies of British grenadiers took possession of the hornwork, while the remainder of the army lined the canal and second parallel. The Continentals marched out through the gate of the hornwork with colors cased and drums playing the Turk's March. A detachment of light infantry and jägers met them midway between the gate and the canal to receive their arms. The militia paraded later in the day within the works. Once the Continentals had grounded arms, grenadiers hoisted the British flag above the works, and the Royal Artillery fired a twenty-one-gun salute. The British had achieved their greatest victory of the war.


Clinton had conducted a classic eighteenth-century siege, proceeding cautiously and methodically against Charleston. He would have done it no other way. Interestingly, Lincoln's engineers, including Duportail, had little faith in the American fortifications; the British, on the other hand, considered them formidable. Consequently, Clinton took no chances. This strategy may not have succeeded had he faced a commander willing to risk an escape.

Lincoln received harsh criticism from some for not withdrawing from Charleston. As can be seen from his deference to civilian officials during the siege, Lincoln very much understood that the success of the Revolution depended upon the support of the people. He was sensitive to criticism that he had left Charleston undefended when Prevost marched on the city. He would not let that happen again. In explaining his actions during the campaign to Washington, he noted that prior to the defeat at Moncks Corner, his army could not have retreated "with honor" or the city been abandoned "with propriety." Both phrases suggest Lincoln was concerned with public opinion. He determined very early in the campaign to defend Charleston and keep the bulk of his force in the city. Unfortunately, Commodore Whipple's inept use of the sea arm, the cavalry's defeat at Moncks Corner, and the abandonment of Lempriere's Point meant that the British could encircle his army. With no real reinforcement reaching the city following the Virginians, Lincoln was doomed.

The nature of operations in South Carolina would have changed dramatically had Lincoln escaped. Eager to return to New York and move forward with operations in the Chesapeake, was Clinton prepared to pursue the Americans into the backcountry? Would the South Carolina militia who had not come in to Charleston have rallied to support Lincoln? Although Lincoln was not Greene, it seems safe to say that British forces would have faced a hornet's nest in the South. With Royal Navy support, the British army could capture coastal cities such as Newport, New York, Savannah, and Charleston fairly easily. It was in the interior that they could not prevail.

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


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                                 revised by Carl P. Borick

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