The Siege of Charleston — America’s Greatest Defeat in the Revolutionary War

April 1, 1780–May 12, 1780

The Siege of Charleston was fought between the United States and Great Britain from April 1 to May 12, 1780, during the American Revolutionary War. British forces won the battle and captured thousands of Americans in the process. It was a major turning point in the American Revolutionary War.

General Henry Clinton, American Revolution

General Sir Henry Clinton led British forces to victory at the Siege of Charleton in 1780. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Siege of Charleston Summary

The Siege of Charleston — also known as the Fall of Charleston — was fought between the United States and Great Britain from April 1, 1780, to May 12, 1780.

After American and French forces failed to capture Savannah, Georgia in October 1779, the Americans retreated to Charleston, South Carolina. Under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln, the Americans fortified the city and prepared for a British attack.

British forces under the command of General Henry Clinton landed in South Carolina and started to build siege lines on April 1. For the next six weeks, the two sides bombarded each other.

While the British slowly moved closer to Charleston, the Americans, who were greatly outnumbered, gradually ran out of food. By May 11, Lincoln and other American leaders, including Christopher Gadsden, knew the city could not hold out.

Lincoln was forced to submit to harsh terms of surrender, and more than 5,000 American troops were taken as prisoners. It was the most significant defeat suffered by American forces during the American Revolutionary War and a major turning point in the conflict.

Siege of Charleston Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: The Siege of Charleston is also called the Fall of Charleston.
  • Date Started: The Siege of Charleston started on April 1, 1780.
  • Date Ended: The siege ended on May 12, 1780.
  • Location: The Siege of Charleston was fought in and around Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Theater: The battle took place in the Southern Theater of the American Revolutionary War.
  • Campaign: The Siege of Charleston was part of the British Southern Campaign.
  • Who Won: Great Britain won the Siege of Charleston.
Siege of Charleston, 1780, Painting, Chappel
This painting by Alonzo Chappel depicts the Siege of Charleston. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Siege of Charleston History and Overview

Following the failed attempt to capture Savannah in October 1779, American forces under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln returned to Charleston, South Carolina. Two months later, in December 1779, General Henry Clinton led a fleet of more than 100 ships out of New York and sailed for Charleston. Clinton’s massive fleet carried more than 13,500 soldiers and he planned to join Lieutenant Colonel Mark Prevost and his men in South Carolina, march overland to Charleston, and capture the city from the Americans.

American Defenses at Charleston

Charleston is situated on a peninsula at the junction of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, which converge to form its harbor. Despite having fewer troops than the British, Major General Benjamin Lincoln decided to concentrate the bulk of his forces in defensive works just outside the city. He constructed an elaborate network of fortifications and defensive works intended to keep British forces from advancing into the city. 

The network stretched across Charleston Neck, from the Ashley River on the west side to the Cooper River on the east side. In front of the fortifications and defensive works was a “wet ditch” — a canal — that could be filled with water from the Cooper River.

In order to capture Charleston, the British would either have to clear the canal, fight their way through the defensive works, and climb the fortifications — while being fired on by American forces. If the British were able to make it past the fortifications, they would encounter more fortifications, closer to the city. It would be an enormous task.

The other option for the British was to lay siege to the city and force the Americans to surrender.

General Benjamin Lincoln, Illustration
General Benjamin Lincon. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

American and British Forces at Charleston

Lincoln had approximately 2,700 Continentals and 2,000 militia to defend Charleston — less than 5,000 men. The Continentals included troops from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. During the siege, Lincoln received additional reinforcements when another 700 Virginia Continentals arrived. He was also supported by 1,000 sailors from the Continental Navy and South Carolina Navy who went ashore to help defend the city.

On the British side, General Henry Clinton amassed a huge army of 7,500 men that included British and Hessian troops, along with Loyalist forces. During the siege, he received reinforcements from New York that totaled around 2,600 men — including the 42nd Regiment, Regiment von Dittfurth, the Queen’s Rangers, the Prince of Wales Regiment, and the Volunteers of Ireland.

The Siege of Charleston Begins — April 1, 1780

On the night of April 1, 1780, Clinton sent out 1,500 men to start building the first siege line —  known as the First Parallel. He also sent another 1,500 men to defend them while they worked, in case of an American attack. 

The British works were designed by Major James Moncrief. According to Moncrief’s plan, he wanted six fortifications in First Parallel, anchored on the left by a battery on Hampstead Hill. The hill was a small rise that overlooked the flat terrain out in front of the city and would give the British command of the area.

By the next morning, the British had constructed three redoubts that were connected by a trench. The redoubts were roughly 800-1,000 yards from the American defenses. The Americans responded by moving guns into position and firing cannons at the British during the day.

On the night of April 3, the British took control of Hampstead Hill and built the artillery battery. Lincoln responded by sending a sloop of war, Ranger, up the Cooper River to bombard the position. However, the Ranger’s attack was successfully defended by British artillery and it was forced to retreat.

The British continued to construct the First Parallel on April 4 and 5, and the American batteries fired on them. Although the damage was light and there were few casualties, Clinton took precautions to protect his workers. He sent ships up the Ashley River and had them bombard the town. However, the Americans continued to concentrate their fire on the siege line.

April 8 — American Reinforcements Arrive in Charleston

American reinforcements arrived in Charleston. They were Virginia Continentals, under the command of General William Woodford, however, there it was only around 700 men.

April 8 — British Ships Take Control of Charleston Harbor

While Clinton had his land forces concentrate on the siege line, he decided to blockade Charleston Harbor. He had ships from the British Royal Navy, under the command of Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot, move from Five Fathom Hole toward the harbor. 

Sailing on his flagship, the 44-gun Roebuck, Arbuthnot led a contingent of ships past Fort Moultrie and American defenses and into the harbor. His fleet included:

  1. The 44-gun Romulus.
  2. The 50-gun Renown.
  3. Four frigates.
  4. The sloop of war Sandwich.
  5. Two transports.

The ships anchored near Fort Johnson on James Island. The island — and the harbor — were effectively under British control.

Arbuthnot left the Roebuck and went ashore to meet with Clinton. Even though the defenses of the First Parallel were still under construction, they agreed to reach out to send a message to Lincoln and ask for his surrender.

Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot, American Revolutionary War
Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

April 9 — The Second Parallel

The British started to work on the Second Parallel on April 9, which moved them closer to the city. The Second Parallel was only 750 feet from the canal.

April 10 — Lincoln Refuses to Surrender

On April 10, Clinton sent a message to Lincoln and requested his surrender. However, Lincoln replied that he intended to defend the city “to the last extremity.” Lincoln responded to Clinton’s message without consulting his officers, some of whom would have recommended he surrender.

April 13 — Lincoln’s Council of War

On the morning of April 13, Lincoln gathered his officers for a Council of War to discuss their situation. He outlined to his senior officers the state of the troops, provisions, stores, and artillery. Some of them expressed concerns about the defensive works, and General Lachlan McIntosh suggested that they should evacuate the Continental troops from Charleston. 

The meeting was interrupted when the British batteries along the First Parallel opened fire on Charleston. The British guns bombarded the American lines and the city for the rest of the day. American artillery fired back, and the two sides continued to fire on each other until midnight.

The British battery on Hampstead Hill fired “hot shot” into the town, which started several fires. There were also civilian casualties in Charleston.

That same day, the Governor of South Carolina, John Rutledge, escaped from the city. Rutledge made his way toward North Carolina. Soon after, he would join up with Colonel Abraham Buford in the backcountry.

April 14 — The Battle of Monck’s Corner

While the Siege of Charleston continued, American forces under the command of General Isaac Huger were posted at Monck’s Corner, 30 miles north of Charleston. The position was vital to American communication and supply lines, and, if necessary, Lincoln’s escape route from Charleston. Clinton sent Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and a contingent of troops to engage Huger. 

Tarleton and his men attacked the Americans before dawn on April 14 and quickly routed them in a brutal fashion. Within an hour, he gained control of Monck’s Corner and Biggin Bridge, completely severing Lincoln’s route to the North. Tarleton and his men also captured the supplies that were headed to Charleston.

April 18 — British Reinforcements Arrive

On 18 April, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Rawdon arrived with 2,500 men, including the 42nd Highlanders, the Hessian von Ditfurth Regiment, the Queen’s Rangers, Prince of Wales American Volunteers, and the Volunteers of Ireland. With the arrival of Rawdon and his men, the British were able to surround Charleston.

April 20 — American Officers Consider Options

Lincoln gathered his officers again on April 20. Despite the loss of Monck’s Corner, McIntosh still believed they could escape along the northwest route, although it would be difficult. Others argued the only course of action was to surrender.

Lieutenant Governor Christopher Gadsden joined the meeting and insisted he needed to discuss the situation with members of South Carolina’s government. Lincoln agreed to reconvene when South Carolina officials were available.

The Council of War resumed later, and Gadsden brought Benjamin Cattell, Thomas Ferguson, Richard Hutson, and David Ramsay — all members of the South Carolina Privy Council — with him. They insisted Lincoln could not surrender the city and that South Carolinians were willing to defend it as long as necessary. Lincoln and his officers decided evacuation was not an option.

Christopher Gadsden, South Carolina, Founding Father
Christopher Gadsden. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

April 21 — Lincoln Offers Terms of Capitulation

Lincoln and his officers met and decided the only course of action was to offer terms of capitulation to Clinton. The two sides agreed to a short truce, and Lincoln sent his terms to Clinton. However, Clinton rejected the terms and British forces continued to move in closer to the city and started construction of the Third Parallel.

April 24 — The Death of Thomas Moultrie

The British continued to move closer to Charleston, but work slowed after the completion of the Second Parallel because of the proximity to the American lines. The Americans continued to fire solid shot and grapeshot at the British with cannons and also used small arms. However, they did not launch any ground attacks on the British — until April 24th.

Early in the morning, before daybreak, Lieutenant Colonel William Henderson led 200 Continentals — from South Carolina and Virginia — and attacked the Third Parallel. The British were surprised but quickly recovered and fought off Henderson’s attack. Henderson’s men were able to capture 12 British troops, however, Captain Thomas Moultrie was killed in the action.

That same day, Colonel Richard Parker was shot and killed when he stood up and looked out over the parapet. Parker was the highest-ranking officer to die during the Siege of Charleston.

April 24 — Duportail Arrives

Brigadier General Louis Duportail arrived in Charleston on April 24 and assessed the American defenses. He believed the defensive works could not be maintained and advised Lincoln to evacuate the city.

General Louis Duportail, American Revolutionary War
General Louis Duportail. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

April 25 — Confusion on the Battlefield

On the night of the 25th, nervous American sentries fired into the darkness, in the direction of the Third Parallel. The British and Hessian troops defending the Third Parallel thought the Americans had launched a ground assault, so they fell back and rushed toward the Second Parallel. The men defending the Third Parallel assumed they were under attack and fired on their own men. It is estimated that 20 men were killed or wounded by friendly fire in the event.

Two days later, on April 27, the Americans placed burning barrels of turpentine in front of their lines each night. The fires cast light out into the space between the armies, which was intended to help avoid any further confusion.

April 26 — Council of War

Lincoln called another council on April 26. The officers unanimously agreed that two things made escape impossible at that point:

  1. The presence of British forces, under the command of General Cornwall, east of the Cooper River.
  2. The insistence by the South Carolina authorities that the city could not be abandoned.

However, the possibility remained that Gadsden and the other South Carolina leaders could change their minds. That left Lempriere’s Point as a possible escape route into the South Carolina Backcountry.

April 27 — British Capture Lempriere’s Point

Prior to the start of the siege, Lincoln sent Colonel Francois Lellorquis, Marquis de Malmedy and 200 North Carolina Militia into the South Carolina Backcountry to secure an American escape route on the Cooper River. Malmedy and his men built a defensive work at Cainhoy, 9 miles from Charles Town, and fortified Lempriere’s Point.

Guns were moved from Fort Moultrie to Lempriere’s Point to help defend against a British attack, which came on April 19. That day, British forces, led by Colonel Patrick Ferguson, attacked Lempriere’s Point but were forced to fall back.

Malmedy assumed General Charles Cornwallis would send a larger force to attack Lempriere’s Point. On the 27th, American scouts engaged a British patrol in the area. Malmedy believed Cornwallis was on his way and ordered his men to spike the guns and evacuate by boat. During the retreat, one of the boats carrying Americans was captured by the British, who then occupied the works at Lempriere’s Point.

With the occupation of Lempriere’s Point, the British cut off the last possible escape route for American forces in Charleston.

May 4 — American Food Rations

By May 4, meat was scarce inside Charleston and the Americans cut rations to six ounces per man. Within 4 days, it was reported there was no meat left, although there was more than enough rice. When the British found out, they fired shells of rice and sugar into the city as a way to taunt the Americans. Lincoln sent his men out throughout the city to find surplus food, but there was very little to be found.

May 6 — British Breach the First Layer of American Defenses

The British opened the canal to the wet ditch and started draining it on May 1. The ditch was empty by May 6 — and the British had effectively breached the first layer of the American defenses. 

Meanwhile, the bombardments continued. The area between the lines became a no-man’s-land, and casualties as the siege dragged on. Sharpshooters became more effective as the British moved closer.

General Clinton started to be concerned the Americans would not capitulate and that he would have to storm the fortifications.

May 6 — Battle of Lenud’s Ferry

At some point on May 5 or the morning of May 6, some of Tarleton’s men were captured by Americans under the command of Colonel Anthony Walton White near a plantation. From there, White and his men took the prisoners and moved toward Lenud’s Ferry on the Santee River, where American forces were gathering. Tarleton found out and went in pursuit of White and caught up with him soon after he arrived at Lenud’s Ferry. Tarleton and his men surprised White and the other American forces gathered there and easily routed them, inflicting heavy casualties in a brutal fashion at the Battle of Lenud’s Ferry.

Banastrae Tarleton, Portrait, Reynolds
Banastre Tarleton. Image Source: Wikipedia.

May 8 — Negotiations Begin

Hoping to avoid the need to launch a ground assault on Charleston, Clinton sent a message to Lincoln on the morning of May 8, asking him to capitulate. Both men agreed to a 24-hour truce so they could meet with their officers and negotiate.

However, Clinton and Lincoln were unable to agree on terms. Around 9:00 p.m. on the 9th, the American troops gave three cheers and then opened fire on the British. For the next two days, both sides bombarded each other. Within a 24-hour period, it is estimated the British fired more than 460 rounds of solid shot and 345 shells into the American defensive works and the city.

May 11 — American Leaders Reconsider

The massive bombardment by the British helped wear the Americans down. Lincoln received petitions from the militia in the city, indicating that were willing to accept the British terms of surrender. The same day, Lieutenant Governor Gadsden sent a letter to Lincoln, advising him to accept Clinton’s terms. Lincoln called a final council of war. All of his officers, except General Duportail, voted to accept the British terms.

The Siege of Charleston Ends — May 12, 1780

At 2:00 p.m. on May 12, British forces occupied the American defenses and lined up along the canal and the Second Parallel. The American Continentals marched out of the city and gave up their weapons. Once the Continentals had grounded their guns, the British flag was raised and the Royal Artillery fired a 21-gun salute. The British — and General Henry Clinton — had achieved their greatest victory in the American Revolutionary War.

Siege of Charleston Outcome

The British victory at the Siege of Charleston devastated American forces in the Southern Theater. The British captured over 300 cannons and about 6,000 muskets, along with vast stores of gunpowder. They also took at least 2,500 Continentals as prisoners. Many of them were imprisoned on ships and did not survive the terrible conditions.

It was the highlight of General Henry Clinton’s time as Command-in-Chief of British forces. Soon after the Siege of Charleston ended, he returned to New York City. He left General Charles Cornwallis in command of British forces in the South and told him to maintain control of Charleston and South Carolina.

After he left Charleston, Clinton issued a proclamation that helped reinvigorate American resistance in the South. The proclamation ordered all Americans who were paroled following the Siege of Charleston to swear an Oath of Loyalty to the King and agree to serve the British when asked to do so. Many Americans refused, and actively worked against Cornwallis as he tried to maintain control of South Carolina and expand his reach into North Carolina and Virginia.

Siege of Charleston Significance

The Siege of Charleston is important to United States history because it was a major turning point in the American Revolutionary War. American forces suffered their worst defeat of the war, while the British gained their most significant victory. However, the outcome of the Siege of Charleston set the stage for General George Washington to place General Nathanael Greene in command of American forces in the South and for Francis Marion to wage his guerilla war against the British. Eventually, Greene, Washington, and their French allies were able to trap Cornwallis in Yorktown, Virginia.

The Fall of Charleston in 1780

This video from The Daily Bellringer provides an overview of the 1780 Siege of Charleston.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Siege of Charleston — America’s Greatest Defeat in the Revolutionary War
  • Date April 1, 1780–May 12, 1780
  • Author
  • Keywords Siege of Charleston, American Revolutionary War, Southern Campaign, Henry Clinton, Benjamin Lincoln, Siege of Charleston APUSH
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 26, 2024