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This Day in History: The Siege of Charleston

On this day in 1780, Charleston falls to the British. The city had been under siege for weeks. Needless to say, the American surrender was a bit demoralizing. For a while, it even seemed that the defeat might be the beginning of the end for the Patriot cause.

Fortunately, it wasn’t!

Siege of Charleston (1780) by Alonzo Chappel.

The British had tried to take Charleston much earlier, in 1776, but that effort had failed. Before too long, however, Britain was working on its “southern strategy,” and it decided to go after Charleston again. In late December 1779, Sir Henry Clinton set out from New York with a fleet of more than 100 troop carriers and warships. They would be temporarily delayed by harsh weather, but they soon landed in Georgia. In the meantime, the American commander in Charleston, General Benjamin Lincoln, had been warned of the approaching danger. He was working to obtain reinforcements and to build a sufficient defense of Charleston.

He was able to improve his situation, but it was not enough. The British arrived and began a siege of the city.

Clinton had his men dig trenches around the city. Each set of trenches was nearer to the city than the last, allowing the British to creep closer and closer to the city. By April 13, Governor John Rutledge had fled from the city, leaving behind Lt. Governor Christopher Gadsden.

Gadsden would end up spending 42 weeks in solitary confinement after the city fell to the British.

There was little that Lincoln could do. He was surrounded and outnumbered. The last several weeks of April were tough. Lincoln kept refusing to surrender, but Clinton kept pounding the city with cannon fire. Eventually, a city that absolutely did not want to surrender became increasingly beaten down. The official surrender occurred on May 12.

Lincoln later asked for a court of inquiry into his command of Charleston. Perhaps he wanted to be cleared? Or maybe he wanted to hear what others thought of his choices? Either way, he was not given one. Instead, Washington continued to trust him! In fact, Lincoln was at Washington’s side when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

There were so many ups and downs in our long fight for independence, weren’t there? Yet our founding generation stayed the course.

And don’t you know that Lincoln found the victory at Yorktown just as sweet as the defeat at Charleston was demoralizing?

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