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Monday, September 28, 2015

Siege of Charleston 1780

In the spring of 1780 through Guilford Courthouse in spring 1781, General Cornwallis' objective was to destroy the American army in the South, and the American plan was to harry the British, distract and essentially bleed them to death and, if possible, engage them decisively.  The British began well here, in Charleston, but their numbers would diminish through attrition whereas the Americans had seemingly endless men from which to draw.  Matters were not helped by Clinton's take it or leave it declaration on his departure from South Carolina for New York, pushing otherwise neutral persons as much towards the American as the British side, and escalating the bloody civil war in South Carolina.

Having failed early in the war to take Charleston under General Clinton, his second effort was successful.  The British fleet and troops arrived on February 10, 1780.  Together with and Lord Rawdon, he commanded 14,000 men and 90 ships.  General Benjamin Lincoln commanded 5,000 men.  Following a siege of about six weeks, Lincoln surrendered.  Here is Marion Square, where Lincoln surrendered.

The plaque tells us: "The British capture of Charleston in May 1780 was one of the worst defeats of the Revolution.  On March 30-31 Gen. Henry Clinton's British, Hessian, and Loyalist force crossed the Ashley River north of Charleston.  On April 1, Clinton advanced against the American defenses near this site, held by Gen. Benjamin Lincoln's Continentals and militia.  The 42-day siege would be the longest of the war. As Gen. Charles Cornwallis closed off Lincoln's escape routes on the Cooper River, Clinton advanced his siege lines and bombarded Charleston.  On May 12, 1780, in front of the American works near this spot, Lincoln surrendered the city and his force of 6,000 men, after what one British officer called "a gallant defense." The British occupied Charleston for more than 2 1/2 years, evacuating Dec. 14, 1782." Astute observers will recall that Yorktown was taken on  October 19, 1781, so for over a year, the British remained in control of the city.

People often think of Yorktown as the end of the war.  Cornwallis surrendered 8,000 soldiers.  Recall that the Americans surrendered some 2,800 soldiers at Fort Washington, New York, early in the war.  In Charleston, we are struck by just how little traditional military victories actually mattered in the end to the political solution.

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