Siege of Charleston



THE British ministry ordered the subjugation of South Carolina, and on the day after Christmas, 1779, Sir Henry Clinton sailed from New York on that errand, with five thousand troops borne by a fleet commanded by Admiral Arbuthnot. He left General Knyphausen in charge of the troops in New York. Encountering heavy storms off Cape Hatteras, the fleet was scattered. Many of the horses perished. A ship loaded with cannon went to the bottom of the sea; another, bearing Hessian troops, was driven across the Atlantic and dashed on the shore of England. It was late in February, 1780, before the scattered British forces (including those of Prevost at Savannah), ten thousand strong, appeared on John's Island in sight of Charleston, a wealthy city of fifteen thousand inhabitants, white and black, and spread over a broad peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper rivers, at their entrance into the sea. The city was then defended by less than two thousand effective men, under General Lincoln. The people of the State were disheartened by events in Georgia. Their western frontier was menaced by the savages, and there was much disaffection in the interior. Had Clinton marched directly upon Charleston when he landed on the islands, it would have been an easy prey; but he tarried a month in preparations and waiting for the arrival of more troops which he had ordered from New York. Meanwhile Lincoln had cast up fortifications across Charleston Neck; and Commodore Whipple, who was in command of a flotilla of small vessels near the bar, had fled into the harbor, sunk some of his craft to obstruct the channels, and transferred his guns and seamen to the fortifications. Fort Moultrie (Sullivan) was well garrisoned, but offered no resistance to the British fleet when it entered the harbor on the 9th of April. The troops had appeared before the American works on the 29th of March, and on the 10th of April, Clinton and Arbuthnot demanded the surrender of the city. It was promptly refused by Lincoln, and a siege went on for a month afterward.

Lincoln soon discovered his peril, and on the 13th of April called a council of officers to consider the propriety of evacuating the town. Before a conclusion could be reached, that movement was impossible. Some detachments of cavalry sent out to keep open a communication between the town and country had been dispersed by British troopers, and Cornwallis had arrived from New York (April 19th) with almost three thousand fresh troops. All hopes for the Americans faded. Fort Moultrie was compelled to surrender to the British on the 6th of May; and on the 9th, a third summons was made for the surrender of the army and the city, and refused. The succeeding night was a terrible one for Charleston. Late in the evening a general cannonade began. The thunders of two hundred heavy guns shook the city all night long. Fiery bomb-shells were rained upon it; and at one time the flames of burning buildings shot up at five different points. Nor did the morning bring relief. The cannonade continued all the day. At two o'clock on the morning of the 11th, Lincoln made a proposition to Clinton for a surrender. The British fleet had moved near the town, to join in the work of destruction, and further resistance would have been madness. The terms of surrender were arranged. It was agreed that the Continental soldiers should march out with their colors cased, and to lay down their arms as prisoners of war; the militia to be dismissed on their parole to take no further part in the contest, and to be secure in person and property so long as they remained faithful to that parole. The citizens of suitable age were also paroled; and by this extraordinary measure, Clinton could boast of over five thousand prisoners of war.

The city was given up to pillage by the British and Hessian troops. When the whole amount of plunder was appraised for distribution, it aggregated, in value, a million and a half dollars, Clinton and his major-generals each receiving about twenty thousand dollars. Houses were rifled of plate and other valuables; confiscation of the estates of the Whigs was threatened, and afterward executed; and slaves, even those who had sought British protection, were seized and sent to the West Indies for sale to swell the money-gains of the conquerors. Over two thousand were sent at one embarkation. They were driven on board the ships in gangs of four or five, lashed together by ropes--men and women--without regard to the separation of families or the supplications of parting kindred. Only upon the promise of unconditional loyalty was British protection offered to any citizen; and in gross violation of the terms of the capitulation, a large number of the leading men of Charleston were taken from their beds, in August, by armed men, and carried on board prison-ships, under the false accusation that they were concerned in a conspiracy to burn the town and murder the loyal inhabitants. In these ships hundreds suffered terribly. Among the more prominent citizens thus treated were Lieutenant-Governor Gadsden and David Ramsay, the historian, who were sent to St. Augustine, where Governor Tryon, the North Carolina "Wolf," was in command. Tryon offered them their liberty on parole. Gadsden, the sturdy patriot, refused. He would make no further terms with men who had broken solemn pledges. "Had the British commander," he said, "regarded the terms of capitulation at Charleston, I might now, although a prisoner, enjoy the smiles and consolations of my family under my own roof; but even without a shadow of accusation preferred against me, for any act inconsistent with my plighted faith, I am torn from them, and here, in a distant land, invited to enter into new engagements. I will give no parole." "Think better of it," said Tryon; "a second refusal of it will fix your destiny--a dungeon will be your future habitation." "Prepare it, then," replied the inflexible patriot. "I will give no parole, so help me God!" And the petty tyrant did prepare it. For forty-two weeks that brave man, almost three-score years of age, never saw the light of the blessed sun, but lay incarcerated in the castle at St. Augustine. And when he, and other prisoners, were exchanged the next year, they were not allowed to enter Charleston, but were sent to Philadelphia, whither their families had been exiled.

The fall of Charleston and the loss of the Southern army were severe blows to the republicans. It paralyzed their strength; and, for awhile, South Carolina lay helpless at the feet of the oppressor. With an activity unusual for British officers in America, Clinton took immediate steps to extend and secure his conquests, and to re-establish royal authority in the South. With a mistaken policy he used harshness instead of conciliation toward the smitten and humbled inhabitants. He sent out three strong detachments to overrun the country and awe the people by a display of power. One of these, under Lord Cornwallis, marched up the course of the Santee River, to Camden; another, under Lieutenant-Colonel Cruger, was ordered to penetrate the country to Ninety-Six; and a third, under Lieutenant-Colonel Brown, went up from Savannah to Augusta.





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