Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 17: Disasters and Misjudgments in South Carolina (January to August 1780) - The Life of George Washington
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CHAPTER 17: Disasters and Misjudgments in South Carolina (January to August 1780) - John Marshall, The Life of George Washington 
The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Disasters and Misjudgments in South Carolina (January to August 1780)
South Carolina invaded.—The British fleet passes the bar and enters the harbor of Charleston.—Opinion of General Washington that the place should be evacuated.—Sir Henry Clinton invests the town.—Tarleton surprises an American corps at Monk’s Corner.—Fort Moultrie surrendered.—Tarleton defeats Colonel White.—Charleston capitulates.—Buford defeated.—Arrangements for the government of South Carolina and Georgia.—Sir Henry Clinton embarks for New York.—General Gates takes command of the southern army.—Is defeated near Camden.—Death of De Kalb.—Success of Sumter.—He is defeated.
1780Admiral Arbuthnot arrived off Savannah on the 31st of January. One of his transports had been brought into Charleston harbor, on the 23d of that month; and the prisoners gave the first certain intelligence that the expedition from New York was destined against the capital of South Carolina.
Before the middle of February, the fleet entered the inlet of North Edisto; and the troops were landed on St. John’s Island. A part of the fleet was sent round to blockade the harbor of Charleston, while the army proceeded slowly and cautiously from Stono creek to Wappoo cut, and through the islands of St. John and St. James.
This delay was employed to the utmost advantage in improving the defences of Charleston. Six hundred slaves were employed on the works; and vigorous though not very successful measures were taken by the executive to assemble the militia.
The American army being too weak to make any serious opposition to the progress of the enemy through the country, the cavalry, with a small corps of infantry, were directed to hover on their left flank, and the other troops, consisting of about fourteen hundred regulars and a few militia, were drawn into the town, and employed on the works.
March 1780Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton1 had been ordered to cover the march of a reinforcement from Georgia, under the command of General Patterson. In one of the excursions of this active officer to disperse the militia, his cavalry encountered Lieutenant-Colonel Washington,2 who commanded the remnant of Baylor’s regiment, and was driven back with loss; but the want of infantry prevented Washington from pressing his advantage.
The command of the harbor is of great importance to the defence of Charleston. To procure this advantage, Congress had ordered four frigates to South Carolina, which, with the marine force of the state, and two French vessels, were placed under the command of Commodore Whipple. It had been understood that the bar was impassable by a ship of the line, and that even a large frigate could not be brought over it without first taking out her guns, or careening her so much that the crew would be unable to work her.
This naval force, it was hoped, might defend the entrance into the harbor; but, on sounding within the bar, it was discovered that the water was too shallow for the frigates to act with effect, and that they would be exposed to the batteries which the assailants had erected.
The intention of disputing the passage over the bar was abandoned, and Commodore Whipple moved his squadron in a line with fort Moultrie, in a narrow passage between Sullivan’s Island and the middle ground. The British ships, without their guns, passed the bar, and anchored in five-fathom hole.3
It being now thought impossible to prevent the fleet from passing fort Moultrie and entering Cooper river, the plan of defence was once more changed, and the armed vessels were sunk in that river, in a line from the town to Shute’s folly.
This was the critical moment for evacuating the town. The loss of the harbor rendered the defence of the place, if not desperate, too improbable to have been persisted in by a person who was not deceived by the expectation of much more considerable aids than were received.
In reply to a letter from Lieutenant-Colonel Laurens, communicating the actual state of things, General Washington said, “The impracticability of defending the bar, I fear, amounts to the loss of the town and garrison. At this distance it is impossible to judge for you. I have the greatest confidence in General Lincoln’s prudence; but it really appears to me, that the propriety of attempting to defend the town depended on the probability of defending the bar; and that when this ceased, the attempt ought to have been relinquished. In this, however, I suspend a definitive judgment, and wish you to consider what I say as confidential.” Unfortunately, this letter did not arrive in time to influence the conduct of the besieged.
On the night of the 1st of April, Sir Henry Clinton broke ground within eight hundred yards of the American lines.
While the besiegers were employed on their first parallel,4 General Woodford, who had marched from Morristown, in December, entered the town with the old continental troops of the Virginia line, now reduced to seven hundred effectives. General Hogan, with the line of North Carolina, had arrived before him.5 The garrison consisted of rather more than two thousand regular troops, of one thousand North Carolina militia, and of the citizens of Charleston. The exertions of the Governor to bring in the militia of South Carolina had not succeeded.
By the 9th of April, Sir Henry Clinton completed his first parallel; and about the same time, Admiral Arbuthnot passed Sullivan’s Island, under a heavy fire from fort Moultrie, then commanded by Colonel Pinckney,6 and anchored under James’s Island, just out of gun-shot of the American batteries.
Being now in complete possession of the harbor, the British General and Admiral sent a joint summons to General Lincoln, demanding a surrender; to which he returned this firm and modest answer: “Sixty days have elapsed since it has been known that your intentions against this town were hostile, in which time has been afforded to abandon it; but duty and inclination point to the propriety of defending it to the last extremity.”
On receiving this answer, the besiegers opened their batteries; but seemed to rely principally on proceeding by sap quite into the American lines.
The communication with the country north-east of Cooper river had hitherto remained open, and was protected by the cavalry commanded by General Huger, stationed at Monk’s Corner, and by some corps of militia posted at different places on the Cooper and Santee. After Woodford had entered Charleston, Lincoln, as an additional security, detached a body of regulars to throw up some works about nine miles above the town, on Wando, the eastern branch of Cooper, and on Lamprere’s Point. The hope was entertained that the militia might be drawn to these posts.
April 14After the completion of his first parallel, Sir Henry Clinton turned his attention to the country on the east of Cooper, to acquire the possession of which it was necessary to disable the American cavalry. This service was committed to Lieutenant-Colonel Webster, who detached Tarleton with the horse and a corps of infantry to execute it. He succeeded completely. Conducted in the night through unfrequented paths to the American videttes,7 he entered the camp with them, killed and took about one hundred men and dispersed the residue, who saved themselves on foot in a swamp. This decisive blow gave Lieutenant-Colonel Webster possession of the whole country between Cooper and Wando.
The besiegers had now commenced their second parallel, and it was apparent that the town must ultimately yield to their regular approaches. An evacuation was proposed, and Lincoln is understood to have favored the measure, but the opposition of the civil government and of the inhabitants deterred him from pursuing the only course which afforded even a probability, by saving his army, of saving the southern states.
Soon after the affair at Monk’s Corner, Sir Henry Clinton received a reinforcement of three thousand men from New York. This addition enabled him to send large detachments to the east side of Cooper river, under the command of Lord Cornwallis.
Lincoln, who appears to have been still inclined to an evacuation of the town, called another council of war. A number of fortunate circumstances must have concurred to render a retreat possible; and the attempt was prevented by the opposition of the civil government. The opinion seems to have prevailed that the escape of the garrison would have been followed by the destruction of the town, and the ruin of the inhabitants. Terms of capitulation were proposed which were rejected by the besiegers, and hostilities recommenced.
The besiegers had begun their third parallel, when Colonel Henderson made a vigorous sally on their right, which was attended with some success.
In this state of things, General Du Portail, chief of the engineers, was conducted through secret ways into the town. Confident that the place could not be defended, he repeated the proposition for attempting a retreat, which was again rejected. Every day added to the difficulties of the besieged. The Admiral took possession of Mount Pleasant, which induced the evacuation of Lamprere’s Point; soon after which, the cavalry who had escaped the disaster at Monk’s Corner, and had been reassembled under Colonel White of New Jersey, was again surprised and defeated by Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton at Lanneau’s ferry.
The investment of the town was now complete, and its condition desperate. The garrison was summoned a second time to surrender, but the terms proposed by Lincoln were refused, and hostilities recommenced.
The besiegers now advanced their works in front of their third parallel, crossed the canal, pushed a double sap8 to the inside of the abatis, and approached within twenty yards of the American works. Preparations were making for an assault by sea and land. The inhabitants prepared a petition to General Lincoln, entreating him to surrender the town on the terms which had been offered by the besiegers.
Convinced that successful resistance was impossible, he made the proposition, and it was accepted. The capitulation was signed on the 12th of May.
The town and all public stores were surrendered. The garrison, including the citizens who had borne arms, were to be prisoners of war. The militia were to retire to their homes on parole, and their persons and property, as well as the persons and property of the inhabitants of the town, to be secure while they adhered to their parole.
The defence of Charleston, though obstinate, was not bloody. The loss of the British was seventy-six killed, and one hundred and eighty-nine wounded. That of the Americans was ninety-two killed, and one hundred and forty-two wounded.
From the official returns made to Sir Henry Clinton, the number of prisoners, exclusive of sailors, amounted to five thousand six hundred and eighteen men. This report, however, presents a very incorrect view of the real strength of the garrison. It includes every male adult inhabitant of the town. The precise number of privates in the continental regiments, according to the report made to Congress by General Lincoln, was one thousand nine hundred and seventy-seven; of whom five hundred were in the hospital.
Aware of the impression his conquest had made, and of the value of the first moments succeeding it, Sir Henry Clinton made three large detachments from his army;—the first, towards the frontiers of North Carolina; the second to Ninety-Six;9 and the third up the Savannah.
Lord Cornwallis, who commanded the northern detachment, received intelligence that Colonel Buford, with about four hundred men, was retreating in perfect security towards North Carolina. He directed Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton with his legion, the infantry being mounted, to pursue this party.May 29, 1780 That officer, by moving near one hundred miles in two days, overtook Buford, in a line of march, at the Waxhaws, and demanded a surrender. This was refused. While the flags were passing, Tarleton continued to make his dispositions for the assault; and the instant the truce terminated, his cavalry made a furious charge on the Americans, who, having received no orders, seem to have been uncertain whether to defend themselves or not. Some fired on the assailants, while others threw down their arms and begged for quarters. None was given. Colonel Buford escaped with a few cavalry; and about one hundred infantry who were in advance saved themselves by flight; but the regiment was almost demolished. The loss of the British was five killed and fourteen wounded.
Tarleton gives a different account of the circumstances which preceded this massacre. He says that the demand for a surrender was made long before Buford was overtaken; that it was answered by a defiance; and that both parties prepared for action.
Scarcely the semblance of opposition remained in South Carolina and Georgia. The spirit of resistance seemed entirely broken; and a general disposition to submit was manifested. The two other detachments, seeing no appearance of an enemy, received the submission of the inhabitants, who either became neutral by giving their paroles10 not to bear arms against his Britannic Majesty, or took the oaths of allegiance.
To give stability to the conquest which had been made, small garrisons were posted at different stations, and a series of measures adopted for the purpose of settling the civil affairs of the province.
So entirely was Sir Henry Clinton convinced of the favorable disposition of the inhabitants, that he ventured to issue a proclamation on the third of June, in which he discharged the militia from their paroles, with the exception of those taken in Charleston and fort Moultrie, and restored them to all the rights and duties of British subjects; declaring, at the same time, that those who should neglect to return to their allegiance should be considered and treated as rebels.
This proclamation disclosed to the inhabitants their real situation; that a state of neutrality was not within their reach; and that the only alternative presented to them was, to drive the enemy out of their country, or to take up arms against their countrymen.
With sanguine hopes that the southern states would be reunited to the British empire, Sir Henry Clinton embarked for New York on the 5th of June, leaving four thousand British troops in South Carolina, under the command of Lord Cornwallis.
The intense heat, and the impossibility of supporting an army in North Carolina before harvest, induced his lordship to suspend an expedition which he meditated against that state. In the meantime he despatched emissaries to his friends, requesting them to remain quiet until late in August or early in September, when the King’s troops would be ready to enter the province.
The impatience of the royalists could not be restrained by this salutary counsel. Anticipating the immediate superiority of their party, they could not brook the necessary severities of the government, and broke out into ill-concerted insurrections, which were vigorously encountered, and generally suppressed. One body of them, however, amounting to near eight hundred men, led by Colonel Bryan, marched down the east side of the Yadkin, to a British post at the Cheraws, whence they proceeded to Camden.
Lord Cornwallis, impatient to derive active aids from the conquest of the state, pursued the system adopted by Sir Henry Clinton, admitting of no neutrality. For some time his measures seemed to succeed, and professions of loyalty were made in every quarter. But under this imposing exterior lurked a mass of concealed discontent to which every day furnished new aliment,11 and which waited only for a proper occasion to show itself.
Late in March, General Washington had obtained the permission of Congress to reinforce the Southern army with the troops of Maryland and Delaware, and with the first regiment of artillery. This detachment was commanded by the Baron de Kalb.12 Such was the deranged state of American finances, that some time elapsed before it could move, and its progress was afterwards delayed by the difficulty of obtaining subsistence. The troops were under the necessity, while passing through the upper parts of North Carolina, of spreading themselves over the country to collect corn for their daily food. In this manner they reached Deep river, and encamped near Buffalo ford in July.
The Baron halted at this place, and was meditating on leaving the direct road, which led through a country exhausted by a body of militia under General Caswell, when the approach of Major General Gates was announced.
Alarmed at the danger which threatened the Southern states, Congress sought for a general in whom military talents should be combined with that weight of character which would enable him to draw out the resources of the country. They turned their eye on Gates; and, on the 13th of June, he was called to the command in the Southern department. He entered with alacrity on its duties; and, on the 25th of July, reached the American camp.
The approach of this army revived the hopes of South Carolina. As the prospect of being supported by regular troops brightened, a small body of exiles, amounting to less than two hundred, who had sought an asylum in North Carolina and Virginia, assembled together, and choosing Colonel Sumter, a continental officer, for their chief, entered South Carolina.13 They skirmished with the royal militia, and with small corps of regulars on the frontiers, and were soon augmented to six hundred men. Such a disposition to resume their arms showed itself in various parts of the state, that the British General deemed it prudent to draw in his outposts, and to collect his troops in larger bodies.
On the 27th of July the American army moved from its ground, and took the nearest route to the advanced post of the enemy on Lynch’s creek, a few miles from Camden. The assurances Gates had received that supplies would overtake him, and would be prepared for him on the road, were not fulfilled; and his distress was extreme. The soldiers subsisted on a few lean cattle found in the woods, and a very scanty supply of green corn and peaches. On the 13th of August, after being joined by General Caswell and Lieutenant-Colonel Porterfield, Gates reached Clermont, sometimes called Rugely’s mills. Lord Rawdon had drawn in his outposts, and assembled his forces at Camden.
The American army was reinforced the day after its arrival at Clermont, by seven hundred militia from Virginia, commanded by Brigadier-General Stevens, an officer of experience and merit. On the same day, an express from Colonel Sumter brought the information that an escort of military stores for the garrison of Camden was on its way from Ninety-Six, and must pass the Wateree at a ferry which was covered by a small redoubt on the opposite side of the river. One hundred regular infantry, with two brass field-pieces,14 were immediately detached to join Sumter, who was ordered to reduce the redoubt, and intercept the convoy. To co-operate with Sumter, it was determined, in a council of general officers, to put the army in motion that evening, and to take post about seven miles from Camden, with a deep creek in front.
About ten at night the line of march was taken up, and the army had advanced about half-way to Camden, when a firing commenced in front.
On receiving intelligence of the approach of the Americans, and of the defection of the country between Pedee and the Black river, Lord Cornwallis had determined to hasten to Camden; which place he reached the day Gates arrived at Clermont.
The British army did not much exceed two thousand men, of whom about nineteen hundred were regulars; but, as the whole country was rising, his Lordship apprehended that every day would strengthen his adversary; and, therefore, determined to attack him in his camp. By one of those caprices of fortune on which great events often depend, he marched from Camden to attack Gates in Clermont, at the very hour that Gates moved from that place towards Camden.
Aug. 16At about half-past two in the morning, the advanced parties of the hostile armies, to their mutual surprise, met in the woods, and began to skirmish with each other. Some of Armand’s cavalry being wounded at the first fire, threw the others into disorder, and the whole recoiled so suddenly, that the front of the column was broken, and the whole line thrown into consternation. From this first impression the raw troops never recovered. The light infantry, however, particularly Porterfield’s corps, behaved so well as to check the advance of the British. Unfortunately, their gallant commander received a mortal wound, and could no longer lead his troops.
As soon as order could be restored, the line of battle was formed. The Maryland division, including the troops of Delaware, were on the right; the North Carolina militia in the centre, and the Virginia militia on the left.
The ground on which the army was drawn up was so narrowed by a marsh on each flank, as to admit of removing one of the Maryland brigades so as to form a second line about two hundred yards in rear of the first. The artillery was placed in the centre of the first line, and Armstrong’s light infantry covered the flank of the left wing.
At dawn of day the British appeared, advancing in column. Captain Singleton opened some field-pieces on its front, at the distance of about two hundred yards, and the American left was ordered to commence the action. As Stevens led on his brigade, Colonel Williams advanced in front with a few volunteers, hoping by a partial fire to extort that of the enemy at some distance, and to diminish its effect on the militia. The experiment did not succeed. The British rushed forward with great impetuosity, and the terrified militia, disregarding the exertions of their General, threw down their loaded muskets, fled from the field, and were followed by the light infantry of Armstrong. The whole North Carolina division, except one regiment, commanded by Colonel Dixon, followed the shameful example. Their General, while endeavoring to rally them, was dangerously wounded.
Tarleton’s legion charged them as they broke, and pursued them in their flight. Gates, assisted by their generals, made several efforts to rally them; but the alarm in their rear continuing, they poured on in a torrent, and bore him with them.
After a vain endeavor to stop a sufficient number at Clermont to cover the retreat of the continental troops, he gave up all as lost, and retreated with a few friends to Charlotte, about eighty miles from the field of battle, where he left General Caswell to assemble the neighbouring militia, and proceeded himself to Hillsborough, in order to concert some plan of future defence with the government.
Deserted by the centre and left wing, the continental troops, with the Baron de Kalb at their head, were left without orders, under circumstances which might have justified a retreat. But, taking counsel from their courage, and seeing only their duty, they preferred the honorable and dangerous part of maintaining their position. They were charged about the time the left was broken, but the charge was received with firmness. The bayonet was occasionally resorted to by both parties; and the conflict was maintained for near three quarters of an hour with equal obstinacy.
The reserve was flanked by the British right wing, which wheeled on that brigade, and, attacking it in front and round the left flank, threw it into some disorder. The soldiers were, however, quickly rallied, and renewed the action with unimpaired spirit.
The fire of the whole British army was now directed against these two devoted brigades. They had not lost an inch of ground, when Lord Cornwallis, perceiving that they were without cavalry, pushed his dragoons upon them, and at the same instant charged them with the bayonet. These gallant troops were broken; and, as they did not give way until intermingled with the enemy, were totally dispersed. Before they were reduced to this last extremity, the Baron de Kalb, who fought on foot with the Maryland brigade, in the front line, fell under eleven wounds. His aid-de-camp, Lieutenant-Colonel Dubuysson, received him in his arms, announced his rank and nation, and begged that his life might be spared. He received several wounds, and was taken prisoner with his General.
Never was victory more complete. Every corps was broken and dispersed. The general officers were divided from their men, and reached Charlotte at different times. The loss of men could never be accurately ascertained. Between three and four hundred of the North Carolina division were made prisoners, and between sixty and one hundred were wounded. Three of the Virginia militia were wounded on the field. Not many were taken.
The loss sustained by the regulars was considerable for the numbers engaged. It amounted to between three and four hundred men, of whom a large portion were officers. The British accounts state their own loss at three hundred and twenty-five, of whom two hundred and forty-five were wounded.
On his retreat, General Gates received information of the success of Sumter. That officer had reduced the redoubt on the Wateree, captured the guard, and intercepted the escort with the stores. This gleam of light cheered the dark gloom which enveloped his affairs but for a moment. He was soon informed that this corps also was defeated and totally dispersed.
On hearing the disaster which had befallen Gates, Sumter retreated up the south side of the Wateree. While giving his troops some refreshments, he was overtaken near the Catawba ford by Tarleton, who entered the camp so suddenly as in a great measure to cut off the men from their arms. Some slight resistance made from behind the wagons, was soon overcome, and the Americans fled precipitately to the river and woods. Between three and four hundred of them were killed and wounded; and the prisoners and stores they had taken were recovered.
Intelligence of the defeat of the American army reached Charlotte the next day. Generals Smallwood and Gist were then arrived at that place; and about one hundred and fifty stragglers, half-famished officers, and soldiers, had also dropped in. It was thought advisable to retreat immediately to Salisbury. From that place General Gates directed the remnant of the troops to march to Hillsborough, where he was endeavoring to assemble another army, which might enable him to continue the contest for the southern states.
[1. ]Banastre Tarleton (1754–1833), from 1778 the highly effective Lieutenant Colonel in command of the British Legion, an irregular (or partisan) force of light infantry and cavalry skilled in reconnaissance, covering operations, and harassing and skirmishing with the enemy; like their American counterpart, Lee’s Legion, Tarleton’s force wore a distinctive green uniform.
[2. ]William Washington (1752–1810) of Virginia, a distant relative (the son of a second cousin) of George Washington; from 1778 Lieutenant Colonel in the Third Dragoons (light infantry), and by 1779 a full Colonel in command of a Continental cavalry regiment of Virginians.
[3. ]The Middle Ground is a deep passage just within the mouth of Charleston Harbor, lying in between Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island and Fort Johnson on James Island; Five Fathom Hole is a deep area just within the bar also, but to the south, adjacent the southern tip of Morris Island.
[4. ]Parallels are successive lines of trenches used to reduce a besieged town or fortress, generally parallel to the fortress wall; each is used as a base of cover against enemy fire for a farther advance by means of approach trenches or saps at an oblique angle, so as to establish the next parallel.
[5. ]Troops, ships, etc., are identified as “of the line” when they are combat units in the armed forces, as opposed to the staff; the term arose from the formation of soldiers or ships in a row or rank in battle. Used for troops, line came to have the further connotation (as here) of regulars as opposed to militia; thus in the Revolutionary War, Continental line and Continental army were synonymous terms.
[6. ]Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825) of South Carolina, from 1776 Colonel in the Continental army (Brigadier General by brevet in 1783); later a prominent delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
[7. ]Mounted sentries of the outposts of an army camp.
[8. ]A sap (trench) with dirt thrown up on both sides, and at its head, so as to provide protection from enemy fire in three directions.
[9. ]Before the Revolution a stockaded village arose in what is now northwestern South Carolina, between the Saluda and Savannah rivers, named from the (erroneous) belief that it was ninety-six miles southeast of Fort Prince George, a frontier post; during the war Ninety-Six was the most important interior military post in South Carolina after Camden.
[10. ]From French, parole (word): one’s word given as assurance.
[11. ]From Latin, alimentum (food): nourishment, sustenance, fuel.
[12. ]Johann Kalb (1721–80), French volunteer; from 1776 a Brigadier General in the French army; commissioned a Major General in the Continental army in 1777; known in America as Baron de Kalb, though the son of Bavarian peasants.
[13. ]Thomas Sumter (1734–1832) of South Carolina, Lieutenant Colonel in the Continental army; in late 1780 named senior Brigadier General of the South Carolina militia. Like the more famous and successful Francis Marion, in 1780 Sumter (the “Carolina Gamecock”) formed a corps of partisans from South Carolina militia volunteers.
[14. ]Light cannons, mounted on wheels for use in the field.