Today, May 12, 1780: Continental Army Suffered Greatest Defeat

Have you ever visited Charleston, South Carolina? Most history buffs who visit the picturesque city think of the Civil War history that took place in Charleston, but few realize that a very historic battle took place in Charleston during the Revolutionary War. It wasn’t until 2009 that the first historical marker commemorating this Revolutionary War battle was placed in Marion Square. Before that, there wasn’t a single marker or remnant of the battle.

At the time, a blocked tidal creek that fed into the Copper River, formed a moat where John Street is today. A fort stood on today’s King Street. It was protected by parapets located at today’s Vanderhorst and Charlotte Streets.

South Carolina was fairly divided between American patriots and British loyalists. In many areas, these two factions clashed against each other. The British helped fuel the tension by supporting the loyalists and urging them to take action against the patriots.

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Realizing that he was not making any headway fighting America’s forces in the northern states, British Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton turned his attention to the south. He sailed his troops south, landing between Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. With an army of about 13,500 trained troops, Savannah fell to Clinton fairly quickly. Next, he turned his attention north to Charleston.

On April 2, 1780, American Major General Benjamin Lincoln commanded 5,466 troops in Charleston when Clinton laid siege to the city. The location of the siege took place at between today’s East Bay and Smith Streets, from Spring Street south to Calhoun Street.

The British immediately began constructing siege lines and redoubts to defend their position and to close in the American forces. They hauled a small warship up Cooper River and placed it so as to block the neck of the river.

On April 8, 1780, the British fleet entered the harbor, managing to pass by the guns at Fort Moultrie.

On April 13, 1780, Clinton tasked Lieutenant Colonel Banastri Tarleton to take his troops and swing around to the north and capture the small American force led by Brigadier General Isaac Huger.

On April 14, 1780, Tarleton attacked Huger at Monck’s Corner. The battle was short and Tarleton was victorious, claiming control of the crossroads north of Lincoln’s position.

On April 21, 1780, Lincoln send word to Clinton that he was open to surrendering the city if Clinton would allow him and his troops to leave. Clinton flatly refused the terms as he was not about to allow over 5,000 American troops to leave and fight elsewhere.

On April 24, 1780, Lincoln tried to launch an attack against the British siege lines, but the attack was unsuccessful and the British easily protected their position.

On April 29, 1780, the British turned their attention to the dam that blocked the tidal creek, creating an effective defense on the American’s northern side. The Americans tried vigorously to defend the dam, but by May 6, the creek had been mostly drained. This gave the British another avenue of attack against the Americans.

On May 8, 1780, Clinton demanded the unconditional surrender of the American forces. Lincoln refused to surrender unconditionally and tried in vain to negotiate terms that would allow his troops to leave. That night, Clinton resumed an intense bombardment of the American fort.

On May 11, 1780, Lincoln sent word to Clinton that he and his troops would march out and surrender the following day.

On this day, May 12, 1780, Lincoln realized he could no longer hold off the British siege and unconditionally surrendered to Clinton. Surprisingly, after six long weeks of fierce fighting, the Americans only suffered 92 fatalities and 148 wounded. The British suffered 76 fatalities and 182 wounded. However, the worst loss was the surrender of 4,650 American troops to the British. [Note – different sources give different figures for the sizes of the armies and casualties on both sides.]

The British went on to conquer more of the southern part of the colonies until the fall of 1780 when American Major General Nathaniel Greene took his forces south and drove the British out.

Lincoln was eventually able to turn the table on the British when he was present when British General Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington at Yorktown on October 19, 1871.

The surrender of Charleston was the greatest surrender of American forces of the entire Revolutionary War. In fact, the surrender of Charleston is the third largest all time surrender of American forces behind Bataan in 1942 and Harper’s Ferry in 1862.


Sources for the above includes: American Revolution: Siege of Charleston; Americans Suffer Worst Defeat of Revolution at Charleston; Battle of Charleston; Siege of Charleston; Siege of Charleston – 1780; Siege of Charleston 1779-1780; Siege of Charleston was Key Revolutionary War Battle.

Dave Jolly

R.L. David Jolly holds a B.S. in Wildlife Biology and an M.S. in Biology – Population Genetics. He has worked in a number of fields, giving him a broad perspective on life, business, economics and politics. He is a very conservative Christian, husband, father and grandfather who cares deeply for his Savior, family and the future of our troubled nation.

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