Editor’s note: This is the 18th installment in a serialized history of Charleston to commemorate the city’s 350th anniversary.
From his perch in St. Michael’s steeple, Peter Timothy could see all of Charles Town, its harbor and the lush Carolina Lowcountry spread out before him.
The view was magnificent and, on this day, horrifying.
It was mid-February 1780, and Timothy — local newspaper publisher, printer and, of late, military lookout — could see the smoke of a thousand campfires rising from a Sea Island to the South.
There was little doubt what he was seeing. It was an invasion.
Since the victory at Fort Sullivan in June 1776, Charles Town had seen little action in the Revolutionary War. The port had remained open, as Robert Rosen notes in “A Short History of Charleston,” business was good, and locals followed news of the battle for independence through Timothy’s South-Carolina Gazette.
But now, Sir Henry Clinton was back. And this time, the British general wouldn’t watch the battle helplessly from Long Island — he would lead it.
The British had little luck fighting the Continental Army in the North, but suspected they would fare better in the South, where there were fewer colonial troops. They had taken Savannah rather easily more than a year earlier. So Gen. Clinton had devised a plan to land 14,000 troops and overwhelm Charles Town in much the same way.
The first regulars arrived on modern-day Seabrook Island in February and began to make their way to Johns Island. As Walter J. Fraser reports in “Charleston! Charleston!,” British warships showed up offshore as the soldiers moved from Johns to James Island.
By April, most of Clinton’s troops had crossed the Ashley River and took position on land the locals called “the Neck.” A mile north of the Horn Work — the city’s fortified wall (where Marion Square is today) — the British set up their big guns. From there, they would advance and shell the city into submission. The siege had begun.
Colonial Gen. Benjamin Lincoln was woefully unprepared for such a show of force. Even with the 1,400 troops newly arrived from Gen. George Washington, Clinton had nearly three times as many soldiers. Lincoln’s men didn’t have enough supplies, ammunition or food. And foolishly, none had been stationed outside of the city.
They were trapped and surrounded.
On April 13, the British began firing into Charles Town, and it was devastatingly effective. Within two hours, the city was on fire, there were civilian casualties, and one round even blew the right arm off the William Pitt statue. No one had time to recognize the symbolism.
The shelling continued intermittently through April. Some residents hid in their homes, but many fled. Gov. John Rutledge evacuated at Gen. Lincoln’s suggestion, and barely made it out before the British cut off the only escape route in a battle near Moncks Corner.
Later, Gen. William Moultrie recalled the incessant barrage of British fire — cannon balls and shells buzzing constantly, local soldiers dying in the streets. And in early May, the Royal Navy landed troops on Sullivan’s Island and took Fort Moultrie, which had been renamed in his honor after the glorious 1776 battle.
As Moultrie weathered the firestorm, that victory became a bittersweet memory.
Lincoln knew he was beaten, but Christopher Gadsden — the lieutenant governor and, in Rutledge’s absence, the ranking political figure — refused to give up. The brief cease-fire ended, and the shelling continued for another week before Lincoln was allowed to surrender.
The siege had lasted 42 days.
One British officer complimented Moultrie on his “gallant” defense of the city, but said the colony never had a chance; it was sabotaged from within. “You had a great many rascals among you … who came out at night and gave us information.”
Charles Town was once again under British rule, and the military did little to endear itself to locals. That first week, one soldier accidentally set off a magazine explosion that killed 60 people. They imprisoned prominent citizens in the Exchange’s basement, and Gen. Clinton commandeered Miles Brewton’s King Street home and made it his headquarters.
The British even took Peter Timothy’s newspaper. Charles Town was forced to get its news from his competitor, who was allowed to keep his presses running after swearing an oath of allegiance to the king.
It was Britain’s greatest victory of the war, and the Continental Army was not coming to the rescue. Charles Town was lost.