It is December 1779 and it is the fourth year into the American Revolution and the war has become a stalemate. Many battles have been won and lost, but neither side has taken the advantage. British General Henry Clinton has a firm base at New York City, but the king's forces have been unable to crush the rebellion as George Washington's army continues to hold them in check. Now camped 30 miles to the west of New York City, the Americans are bracing themselves for another rough winter. The 13,000 American troops camp at Morristown, New Jersey. It has been two years since the Continental Army has survived the legendary conditions at Valley Forge, but this winter will be worse than all others. Valley Forge was a disaster because of the lack of supplies, but Morristown is worse due to the elements. The winter of 1779 was the worst winter in North American history. There were 26 snow storms and 6 of them were blizzards. It was so cold in January that in all but two days was the winter below freezing. At Valley Forge it took four weeks to build the army's cabins, but at Morristown the conditions slow the progress to months so many soldiers are forced to sleep in tents or even in the snow. Like all winters in the American Army, there is a lack of food and supplies. Soldiers fill there diaries with the accounts of the poor conditions at Morristown. It is another low point for Washington as he receives letter from generals who are pleading for supplies. Washington asks the Continental Congress for aid but they cannot supply the army due to inflation which made the American money practically worthless. With no food and supplies, Washington faces the possibility of being forced to dissolve his army.
The Southern Strategy
Meanwhile, 800 miles to the south at Charleston, South Carolina it is a very different winter. Four years into the war, the south has not been raging with war. In the hub of commerce and trade life goes on undisturbed. The wealthy enjoy the luxurious parties in their social lives. Dances and dinner fill the evenings, a far cry from the hardships faced by an army fighting for their liberty. Charleston has only be threatened only once by the British, a poorly executed attack in 1776 that was easily fended off. From the looks of it Charleston is hardly party of a nation at war. All that is about to change. Across the Atlantic Ocean in Britain a new strategy for the war is about to be unleashed. In the halls of Parliament it has been a year of great debate. The British national debt has soared to over 160 million pounds due in large part to the prolonged war and there is no end in sight. The main figures of the British government like Prime Minister Lord North are daily targets in the newspapers that talk about the costly and brutal war, a war where the stakes have been raised by their arch enemy France which entered into the fight on the American side. Now the British policy makers prepare a new strategy for the war that becomes known as the southern strategy. The plan is to move to the southern colonies and to restore order and establish a foothold. The south is the wealthiest part of the 13 colonies with the major sources of export including tobacco, grain, rice, indigo, and naval stores. The key to the southern strategy is that their movements to the south may be supported by loyalists, the Americans still loyal to the crown and that thousands of loyalist militia would pour out and join their cause. They decide that their target will be Charleston, South Carolina. On December 26, 1779 at the British headquarters in New York City, British General Sir Henry Clinton makes preparations to carry them out. This is Clinton's first offensive action, one so important that he himself will conduct the assault on Charleston. Two commanders have failed for Britain in this war and Clinton does not want his name added to the list. The British leave New York City with more than 100 ships and a force of 8,700 troops which is roughly one third of the British Army in North America and being their voyage to Charleston, South Carolina. With the conditions freezing and no navy to stop them, Washington must stay at Morristown and his southern army will have to fend for themselves.
800 miles south of Washington's winter camp, Benjamin Lincoln, the new commander of the Continental Southern Army is assuming his duties. The major general was dispatched south 3 months earlier by Washington himself and is now in command of 2,400 soldiers, but the Massachusetts farmer is an unlikely choice for a commander. Benjamin Lincoln suffers from sleep apnea and he does not have the battlefield charisma that one would want in a commander, however he is a good politician and that is one of the main reasons why he is in command of the southern department. Major General Lincoln's main objective is the defense of Charleston, South Carolina, the city known as the "Jewel of the South". Clustered on a low sandy piece of land, Charleston sits on a peninsula at the junction of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. It is the fourth largest city in America at the time with 12,000 residents. Its deep water harbor makes Charleston the south's most important port. Rice, Indigo, tobacco, grain, and naval stores leave daily for Europe and the West Indies. Charleston by value of its exports is the richest port in America at the time. Nature has given the American Army at Charleston a strong defensive position. Surrounded by impassible swamps that are full of mosquitos, it is very risky for any army to move around the city. On January 10, 1780 Benjamin Lincoln receives news from scouts along the coast that a massive British force is approaching Charleston. With his command barely underway, Lincoln will have to fight Britain's army. Lincoln immediately requests that South Carolina's governor should recruit and raise more troops, but the request is denied. It is not the first time South Carolina has upset the patriot cause, many see the colony's people as reluctant revolutionaries that only joined on the revolutionary side due to the pressure from other colonies. Lincoln decides to ask the Continental Congress for reinforcements and they prepare to send 3,000 militia troops from Virginia and North Carolina. With his back against the wall, Lincoln decided to ask the wealthy residents of Charleston to arm their slaves to help defend the city. His request is denied as totally impractical. With no immediate reinforcements Lincoln should have left Charleston, but the general's sense of honor makes him stay and defend his post. A retreat would be wise, but would also open him to cowardice. Undermanned, undersupplied, and unsupported, Lincoln will make his stand at Charleston and he sends a message to Washington, but from New Jersey there is nothing Washington can do. With his army very far away and starving, moving his force south is out of the question. On February 11, 1780 after voyage down the frigid Atlantic, British General Henry Clinton and his force of 8,700 soldiers arrive at their destination and being the march north to the city.
The Siege Begins
On February 16th the British capture James Island which sits right across the harbor from Charleston. Finally, at the end of March, they cross the Ashley River in force; the British southern campaign is underway. At his headquarters within the city, Major General Benjamin Lincoln readies himself for the assault. There is no sign of the 3,000 reinforcements Congress promised a month earlier and his army is severely outnumbered. So the major general prepares his defense the only way he knows how; Lincoln orders his men to grab shovels to build earthworks to defend Charleston and Lincoln stands alongside his men working as well. His army creates walls of dirt, digs up trenches, places stakes, and makes every obstacle possible to slow the British progress, but Lincoln knows that unless reinforcements arrive all the work they did would had been for nothing. On April1, 1780 the British begin to make their own fortifications 800 yards west of the America defenses. General Clinton's goal is to take Charleston intact because if he destroys the town he fears that the residents there would not accept British occupation. So Clinton decides that he will surround Charleston and conduct a very constructed formal assault on the city; a siege. A siege is not meant to destroy an objective, but to capture it. The plan is to build parallel trenches that will encircle the city and then start firing artillery into the city. As time passes the enemy inside the city or fort will start to starve due to the lack of food. Meanwhile the army trying to take objective would slowly move closer and hopefully force the enemy to surrender. If the enemy does not surrender then the objective must be attack before reinforcements arrive or the enemy breaches and escapes the siege. Helping to construct the first British parallel is slaves. The African slaves were promised freedom if they join the British cause and because of this several slaves escaped from the plantations and are now in the British army. By Day 5 of the siege and the British continue building trenches closer and closer to the American ones every night. In the morning the British fire their artillery batteries. On Day 7 from the north comes the news General Lincoln has been waiting for. The militia promised by Congress has arrived and are making their way into the city. Charleston's citizens greet the soldiers with cheer and the endless ringing of bells. However, Benjamin Lincoln is not in a good mood because rather than the 3,000 soldiers Congress promised, the reinforcements are 750 troops. These numbers fall far too short to provide much assistance, the British still outnumber the Americans incredibly. On Day 8 the British take their aim on Charleston Harbor as a group of their warships sail up the channel under cannon from Fort Moultree, an American outpost. Despite all dangers the British warships pass the outpost and enter that harbor now ready to fire on Charleston. Now Clinton nearly encircles the entire city. On Day 10 the British offer a request for the Americans to surrender, but General Lincoln immediately declines it. On Day 14 the British parallels come closer and closer to the city and the British cannons fire closer to the city. Only one escape route remains for the Americans called Monk's Corner that is defended by a small American garrison that is charged with keeping the route open at all cost. For the British, it is the last objective needed to completely surround the city. In charge of taking the position is a brash, young, and ambitious cavalryman, Banister Tarleton. The 24-year-old Tarleton is as an ambitious as any officer and he specializes in quick hits on the enemy and is also known for being very brutal. At Monk's Corner Tarleton orders his troops to launch a surprise attack at night and they strike fast catching the Continental garrison completely off guard. The final road out of Charleston is now closed.
The Siege Ends
It is Day 18, Charleston continues to be attacked from British cannon fire. By Day 21 in the American headquarters General Benjamin Lincoln finds himself in an angry debate. Some of his officers want to take a dangerous action. A risky retreat by water under the cover of night, but with the British fleet sitting just off the city, moving his army across the river would be suicide. So Lincoln decided to agree to an armistice with Clinton. Having already unaccepted Clinton's offer, Lincoln sends Clinton his own terms. He will give up Charleston and in return his forces can retreat for 10 days without being attacked with its arms, military stores, and baggage. In addition he asks for the guaranteed protection of the residents' property and those who want to evacuate can sell their goods off and leave the city. It would be a free evacuation with the honors of war, one of the most lenient surrender in a formal siege, but British General Clinton will have none of it. His goal is the complete capitulation of the Americans; he returns the note and sends his own terms which are the order of a total surrender. A total surrender is one of most humiliating defeats that the enemy can suffer which would mean capture of his entire army. Lincoln finds the terms unacceptable and declines them; it will be a fight to the end. On Day 30 the British parallels have closed within 500 feet of the defenses at Charleston. At this distance cannon can be fired with accuracy into the city. Even with this close range the British do not know how the enemy feels and if their barrage is even working. Clinton's men intercept a letter from an American militiaman to his wife and it confirms the mood in the besieged city. It talks about the enemy (the British) continuing their approaches and that the city is low on provisions. The militiaman feels that it will only be a short time before the British plan their flag on their (the American) ramparts and that it will give a huge shock to the American troops. Clinton publishes the letter for all his men to see and increases the cannon barrage. On Day 38 in the American headquarters Benjamin Lincoln is trying to salvage his defense to hold out in time for reinforcements or a possible escape route or at least something that can save his army and change the tide of the battle to his favor. Now devastating news arrives from his lines, the South Carolinian militia has abandoned their posts within the city leaving some roads open for the British to enter and now the citizens of Charleston are saying that they have had enough. Major General Benjamin Lincoln, commander of the southern department of the Continental Army, has run out of options. On Day 41 the terms of surrender reaches Benjamin Lincoln's desk again and the time has come to give up the fight and to surrender his post. The British cannon finally fall silent. On May 12, 1780 the American southern army surrenders and takes down the flag of its country and lays down its weapons. The entire Charleston garrison, made up of 5,000 continental soldiers and militia are now prisoners to the British. It is the heaviest loss the Americans have suffered in the revolution. Major General Benjamin Lincoln becomes a prisoner of war on parole. Charleston, the "Jewel of the South", belongs to the king. General Henry Clinton has got the victory he needed to gain confidence in the government, he also believes that the conquering on the southern colonies will be an easy campaign and that he has already won the Carolinas because of the victory at Charleston. In Britain there is cause for much overdue celebration. It has been three year since their army, the best in the world, has received such a decisive win. Finally the tide of war is turning and the Southern Strategy is a seeming success. Back at the American base at Morristown there is no cause for celebration. The final dispatch from Charleston has arrived to Washington about the defeat of his southern army. The brutal winter of 1780 has taken a terrible toll on his army. Some troops are planning to leave due to the tough winter and more public morale is lost due to the defeat at Charleston which Washington was powerless to stop. The commander-in-chief cannot predict what will happen in the war he once called "this glorious cause".
I am so glad that General Lincoln was given the honor to accept the sword of surrender from General O'Hara at Yorktown. It made up for the earlier slap in the face at Charleston.
To be fair, since Cornwallis did not gibe his sword, Washington should not earn the sword of a brigadier.