The Capture of Charleston – 11 May 1780

by | Feb 4, 2017 | 1780, American Revolutionary War 1776-1783 | 14 comments


In June 1776 Commodore Sir Peter Parker and Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton s forces had suffered a large number of casualties in failing to capture the port of Charleston in South Carolina. Notwithstanding that disaster, the British government continued to covert Charleston, as they were anxious to establish a southern base for their operations and to take advantage of what they regarded to be the loyalist sympathies of a population under the subjugation of the rebels.

Following the withdrawal from Philadelphia in 1778 and Rhode Island in 1779, the capture of Charleston became even more important in order to boost the British campaign in the colonies. Upon receiving confirmation that the French fleet under the unsuccessful Comte d Estaing had left North American waters, a combined force under the command of General Sir Henry Clinton and Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, comprised of seven thousand six hundred men aboard ninety transports escorted by fourteen men of war, departed New York on 26 December 1779 to attempt the reduction of the southern port.


Admiral Arbuthnot

The despatch of such a large expedition in the winter season was always going to be hazardous, and during a particularly stormy passage south many of the cavalry s horses died, an ordnance ship foundered, and one transport carrying two hundred Hessian troops was driven all the way across the Atlantic to fetch up in Cornwall. Eventually the remainder of the combined force arrived off Savannah, some hundred miles to the south of Charleston, which town had been captured in late 1778 and successfully defended from the French fleet and the Continental Army a year later. Here it made good its repairs before setting off for South Carolina.

On 11 February the army was landed on John s Island, approximately thirty miles to the south of Charleston, under the superintendence of Captain Hon. George Keith Elphinstone. This officer then brought ashore a number of cannon from the heavier men-of-war, and he was placed in command of a naval brigade of seamen to man them. Meanwhile the larger ships of the line were obliged to push out to sea, being unable to enter the shallow inlets of the Carolinas to seek shelter from the continually bad weather. In time, and after the wrecking of the Defiance 64 on 18 February on the Savannah Bar, a loss which saw Captain Maximilian Jacobs court-martialled and dismissed, it became evident to Arbuthnot that the ships of the line would be unable to play any further part in the expedition. Thus the decision was taken to send the Robust and Russell back to New York on 8 March, whilst Arbuthnot’s flagship Europe and the Raisonnable were despatched to Port Royal, which had been captured on the voyage south. The depleted naval force had in the meantime been supplemented on 6 March by the arrival of the Richmond 44, Captain John Kendall off Tybee with a convoy, and having shifted his flag into the Roebuck 44, and with the Renown 50, the Romulus 44 and the frigates Blonde, Perseus, Camilla and Raleigh in company, Arbuthnot proceeded to blockade Charleston.

By 9 March the British troops had crossed over both John s and James Island and were encamped on the banks of the Ashley River to the south of Charleston. Orders had previously been sent to Georgia calling for reinforcements, and in mid-March fifteen hundred men led by Brigadier-General James Patterson crossed the Savannah River and within twelve days had joined the army by marching overland. With time on his side, and not wishing to repeat the disastrous failure of his and Parker s previous attack, Clinton did not attempt to rush the campaign but instead gradually continued the encirclement of Charleston. For their part the American defenders used the time to bring in slaves to help build up their defences.

On 20 March, and having lightened the Roebuck, Renown and Romulus of their guns, provisions and water, a favourable wind and tide allowed Arbuthnot to take his entire squadron across the bar at the entrance to Charleston Harbour into Five Fathom Hole. In doing so the ships faced but mild resistance from the Americans, whose gallies which did little more than harass the boats taking soundings. An allied squadron under the command of Commodore Abraham Whipple, consisting of nine ships with armaments ranging from 16 to 44 guns, was anchored in the channel between Sullivan s Island and the middle ground in order to rake the British ships should they attempt to engage Fort Moultrie, this being the defence on Sullivan s Island which had been so instrumental in defeating the 1776 expedition, and which towered above the narrow channel to the inner harbour. However as soon as the rebels saw the British squadron crossing the bar they upped anchor and retreated towards the town. Five of the men-of-war, together with a number of merchantmen, were then scuttled between Charleston and Shute s Folly in order to hamper the further passage of the British vessels. Several of the sunken vessels had chevaux de fries implanted on their decks, whilst a boom made up of the spars from the sunken ships, together with cables and chains, was placed between these ships and the shore, behind which the remainder of Whipple s squadron were supported by a forty 24-pounder gun battery.


Commodore Whipple

On 29 March General Clinton forced his way up the west side of the Ashley River and captured Charleston Neck, a peninsula on the north side of the town. Under the superintendence of Captains Elphinstone and Henry Evans, together with the principal agent of transports, Thomas Tonken, and with the protection of the British galleys, flat-boats then conveyed the army across the Ashley River on the night of 1 April, to gain a foothold on the opposite bank within eight hundred yards of the rebel works. The British batteries

On 9 April Arbuthnot, with the benefit of a fair wind, high tide, and foggy conditions, decided to brave the cannon of Fort Moultrie. Directing operations from a jolly boat, he piloted the Roebuck through the narrows with Captain Sir Andrew Snape Hamond’s frigate giving the fort a resounding broadside in passing. Despite the loss of a fore-topmast the Richmond successfully followed her, and within a couple of hours the Romulus, Blonde, Virginia and Raleigh had fought their way through the channel, whilst the Renown in the rear also gave the fort as good as she received. One storeship, the Aeolus, did drive ashore under fire and had to be burned, but in suffering a mere twenty-seven casualties and damage aloft which could be repaired, Arbuthnot’s habitual arrogance had for once paid dividends, and by 6.30 his squadron was at anchor under James Island. Initially this berth appeared to be anything but safe, however Captain Hamond s fortitude in not responding to the fire of the American batteries as it passed over the Roebuck persuaded the rebels that the British ships were out of range and they consequently ceased fire.

On 17 April three thousand troop reinforcements arrived from New York, and by the 19th General Clinton s artillery was within four hundred and fifty yards of the American lines. By now Charleston was nearly surrounded, and following negotiations the colonials forces announced on 21 April that they were willing to surrender should they be allowed the honours of war. These were terms that were unacceptable to the British commanders, and so they were rejected and the siege was progressed.

Back in the harbour it had been Arbuthnot s intention to push into the Cooper River to the north of Charleston with the aim of extending its encirclement, but his plans could not being carried out whilst some enemy works on Mount Pleasant covered a number of obstacles blocking the channel. Instead orders were given to arm and man a number of vessels that had been captured by Lieutenant-General Lord Cornwallis s troops in the Wandoo River, which also flowed into the harbour from the north. At the same time a force of five hundred seaman and marines led by Captains Charles Hudson, John Orde and James Gambier was ferried ashore at dawn on the 29th to attack the works on Mount Pleasant. Upon receiving intelligence that the rebel garrison at Lempries Point overlooking the Cooper River redoubt were abandoning their post this force raced ahead and managed to prevent the enemy from evacuating their guns and stores.

Now being possessed of the works on Mount Pleasant, and being emboldened by the flow of deserters from Sullivan s Island, Arbuthnot decided to attack the weakly-defended western side of Fort Moultrie under the covering fire of his men-of-war. Captains Hudson and Gambier, assisted by Commander John Knowles of the Transport Service, led a force of two hundred seaman and marines which on the night of 4 May passed unobserved below the fort s guns and captured a redoubt on the eastern end of Sullivan s Island. Backed by a force of another two hundred men under Captain Orde who were waiting to join the attack, and with the ships straining at their anchors awaiting the tide to move in and begin their bombardment, Hudson summoned the garrison. An initial somewhat flippant response included the resolution that Fort Moultrie will be defended to the last extremity , to which Hudson responded on the 6th by stating that if a surrender was not forthcoming within fifteen minutes he would storm the fort and offer no quarter. Immediately the Americans surrendered and on the next day the British moved in and raised their flag.


The Siege of Charleston

The sight of British colours flying over Fort Moultrie was the final nail in the coffin for the beleaguered allied forces in the town, and having been subject to a month s sustained bombardment by sea and land which in the last few days had included heated shot and shell, and after refusing several summonses, Charleston itself capitulated on the 11th.

Whilst the British troops took possession of the town on 12 May the navy gratefully accepted the surrender of the remains of the allied squadron. This consisted of the Providence 32, which was bought into the navy under her own name and commissioned by Captain John Henry, the Boston 32, which was re-floated and renamed the Charleston, being commissioned by Captain Evans, and the Ranger 20. A French corvette, the Aventuri re 26, Captain de Brulot, and the Polacre 16 were also captured, whilst amongst those vessels which had been scuttled in the channels were the Bricole 44, Truite 26, Queen of France 28, General Moultrie 20, and Notre Dame 16. The total number of continental troops, militiamen, American seamen and French taken prisoner was in the region of six thousand, including seven generals and Commodore Whipple. The navy lost twenty-three men killed and twenty-seven wounded during the campaign.

For the rebellious colonies the loss of Charleston was their most conclusive defeat to date. Captain Hamond was sent home with despatches in the Perseus with Captain Elphinstone, arriving at the Admiralty on 15 June, whilst the duplicates were delivered by Captain John Orde of the Virginia. In the meantime Vice-Admiral Arbuthnot returned to New York with his flag aboard the Roebuck under the command of Hamond s nephew, Captain Andrew Snape Douglas, and he soon learned that he had been voted the thanks of the grateful Houses of Parliament to acknowledge his part in the expedition. For a man of limited abilities it was to be his greatest hour, and both he and General Clinton were also able to congratulate themselves on having co-operated with an equally difficult commander in order to achieve the capture of such an important base.

Arbuthnot’s fleet:

Europe 64 Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot
Flag Captain William Swiney
Robust 74 Captain Phillips Cosby
Russell 74 Captain Francis Samuel Drake
Defiance 64 Captain Maximilian Jacobs
Raisonnable 64 Captain Henry Francis Evans
Renown 50 Captain George Dawson
Roebuck 44 Captain Sir Andrew Snape Hamond
Romulus 44 Captain George Gayton
Blonde 32 Captain Andrew Barkley
Raleigh 32 Captain James Gambier
Richmond 32 Captain Charles Hudson
Virginia 28 Captain John Orde
Camilla 20 Captain John Collins
Perseus 20 Captain the Hon. George Keith Elphinstone