The Southern Revolution:
The Charleston Campaigns

by J. M. Pressley
First published: July 1, 2008

Charleston was the site of major defeats for both the British and Continental armies during the American Revolution.


As 1775 turned to 1776, all events indicated that the revolt of the American colonies was gaining in popular support. Colonial militias had fared well at Lexington and Concord, Fort Ticonderoga, and Bunker Hill. Now the colonies boasted a Continental army nearly 17,000 strong under the command of George Washington, a makeshift navy, and a newfound confidence that came from bloodying the Crown's nose. Great Britain had taken notice.

Determined not to let the rebels gain any more momentum, British commanders decided that a strategic show of force in the southern colonies was in order. Not only might it stamp out the spark of rebellion in the South before it could turn into a blaze, such a move was planned to embolden Loyalists in those colonies to help the British maintain their authority. It was a classic divide-and-conquer strategy designed to isolate New England.

The British first targeted Charleston. Their campaign would ultimately take four years, result in stinging defeats for both the British and Continental armies, and prove its presumptions generally wrong.

1776: Clinton's Failure

General Henry Clinton was given command of a 2,500-man expeditionary force in early 1776. His mission was to rendezvous off Cape Fear with a British fleet under Admiral Sir Peter Parker for an eventual amphibious assault on Charleston, but the plan was also contingent on linking with Highlander Tories in North Carolina. When rebel militiamen trounced 1,600 Highlanders at the Battle of Moores Creek in February of 1776, the defeat jeopardized the entire strategy. Furthermore, Parker's fleet was delayed in meeting Clinton, and the operation didn't get underway until May. The fleet dropped anchor off Charleston Bar on June 4.

Faced with imminent invasion, the citizens of Charleston went to work. Their defenses started on the two islands guarding the inner harbor. Sullivan's Island boasted Fort Sullivan, an unfinished construction of sand and palmetto logs, which Charleston's overall commander, General Charles Lee, deemed "a slaughter pen." Clinton and Parker intended for the ships to smother Fort Sullivan with cannon fire while barges landed the soldiers on nearby Long Island, where they would cross a shallow ford to Sullivan's Island and breach the incomplete rear fortifications.

The ensuing British defeat of June 28 was a failure of reconnaissance and assumptions. The raw gun crews of Fort Sullivan did their job with a calm precision that belied their inexperience. At the onset, the shifting tide grounded three ships and left the rest unable to close in for a more effective range. British cannonballs thudded fruitlessly against the spongy palmetto log walls, even as the men of the 2nd South Carolina regiment under Colonel William Moultrie riddled the fleet with a steady, deliberate barrage that didn't waste shots. The flagship H.M.S. Bristol suffered tremendous casualties on her quarterdeck. Parker himself suffered splinter wounds, one to his knee, and another that "ruined his britches" and left "his backside laid bare."

In the meantime, Clinton's soldiers found themselves stranded on Long Island. The British charts showed the breach they intended to cross as shallow as half a yard at low tide. It was actually seven feet deep. A South Carolinian advance guard on Sullivan's Island kept the British pinned by rifle fire until nightfall, when Clinton abandoned any hope of mounting a land assault. In all, Clinton and Parker had suffered the loss of nearly 200 casualties and the frigate Actaeon, which the British set ablaze on the sandbar where she grounded. The Americans had suffered only 37 killed or wounded, and Fort Sullivan had held the British completely at bay.

The British force withdrew from Charleston in mid-July, making no further assaults in the meantime. Charleston would remain in American hands for nearly four years. Moultrie, the city's hero, would be promoted to brigadier general following the action, and Fort Sullivan was rechristened as Fort Moultrie in his honor.

1780: The Siege of Charleston

Fortune was less kind to southern patriots in early 1780. Georgia, following the fall of Savannah and its other major cities, lay entirely under British control. Clinton once more turned his eyes toward Charleston, hoping again to strangle the South into submission. This time, however, Clinton learned from the lessons of 1776. The British Navy, rather than provide target practice for shore batteries, formed an offshore blockade. Clinton's soldiers landed well south of the city and made an encircling inland march designed to cut off any means of escape.

Standing against the British was a 5,000-man Continental army commanded by General Benjamin Lincoln. Unfortunately, it was an army better suited for mobility than a prolonged siege. Lincoln had little choice, however, given the pressure he faced to hold the city, than to throw up the earthworks and dig in. He at least hoped to keep a narrow corridor of retreat open to the north; that hope was dashed when the notorious Banastre Tarleton defeated a colonial regiment holding Monck's Corner for that purpose. By April 24, Clinton had sealed off every evacuation route.

Lincoln rejected Clinton's initial call for surrender on May 8. On May 9, Clinton unleashed an artillery barrage that didn't let up until May 12. His men exhausted, the city ablaze, Lincoln was forced to offer unconditional surrender. It would be the largest single loss of Continental troops of the revolution. In addition, the capture of Charleston meant the loss not only of valuable supplies, but nearly every major patriot leader in South Carolina, military and civilian.


The 1776 defeat at Fort Sullivan immeasurably set back the British cause. Coupled with the news of the Declaration of Independence mere days later, it emboldened the patriot cause in the South and bought all the colonies precious time to muster men and resources to further the revolution. While the 1780 surrender was the worst colonial defeat of the war, it ultimately proved to have consequences that would favor rebel forces.

Dictated by necessity, the southern theater effectively ceased to be an organized war between standing armies. Commanders like Nathanael Greene, Daniel Morgan, and Francis Marion turned to guerrilla tactics and a brilliant strategy of fighting retreats that stretched British forces thin and left their supply lines vulnerable. The ensuing campaign led Cornwallis to Yorktown—and a surrender that marked the end of Great Britain's rule in America.


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Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Savas, Theodore P. and J. David Dameron. Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution. New York, NY: Savas Beatie LLC, 2006.