May 12, 1780 Disaster at Charleston

As the British war effort collapsed in the north, Secretary of State for the American Department Lord George Germain set his sights on a “southern strategy”.  The idea had been around since 1775, that the crown enjoyed greater support in the south.  Break the back of the rebels down there, and the war would be won.

With the Revolution approaching the two-year mark, British war planners believed that the fractious northeast must be split off and separated from the more loyalist mid-Atlantic and southern colonies.  A three prong pincer movement was devised by which the western pincer under Lieutenant Colonel Barrimore Matthew “Barry” St. Leger was to move east from Ontario along the Mohawk river, meeting up with a combined force of British regulars, Hessian mercenaries, loyalists and Indian allies under General John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne, moving south from Quebec.

General William Howe was to move north from New York city and converge on the Hudson river valley, completing the pincer movement.

SARAmapFOSTBurgoyne’s movements began well with the near-bloodless capture of Fort Ticonderoga in early July, 1777. By the end of July, logistical and supply problems caused Burgoyne’s forces to bog down. On July 27, a Huron-Wendat warrior allied with the British army murdered one Jane McCrae, the fiancé of a loyalist serving in Burgoyne’s army. Gone was the myth of  “civilized” British conduct of the war, as dead as the dark days of late 1776 and General Washington’s “Do or Die” crossing of the Delaware and the Christmas attack on Trenton.

McCrae’s killing was as a hornet’s nest to the cause of patriot recruitment, and a severe blow to loyalist morale.

The_Death_of_Jane_McCrea_John_Vanderlyn_1804_cropMeanwhile, attempts to solve the supply problem culminated in the August 16 Battle of Bennington, a virtual buzz saw in which New Hampshire and Massachusetts militiamen under General John Stark along with the Vermont militia of Colonel Seth Warner and Ethan Allen’s “Green Mountain Boys”, killed or captured nearly 1,000 of Burgoyne’s men.

Burgoyne’s Indian support evaporated in the wake of the disaster at Bennington, as did that of Barry St. Leger, following the failed siege of Fort Stanwix. St. Leger’s September arrival at Ticonderoga, was too late to save Burgoyne from what was to come.

Fun fact: On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the resolution: “Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white, on a blue field, representing a new constellation.” The measure wouldn’t be adopted until the September 3 signature of the Secretary of congress but the design was well publicized.  Massachusetts recruits brought the news to Fort Stanwix, also known at the time as Fort Schuyler. The garrison cut up petticoats and other articles of clothing, and fashioned a banner.  So it was the first official United States flag was raised over Fort Schuyler during the battle of August 3, 1777.

As it happened, General Howe moved his forces south by sea to capture Philadelphia. It was Burgoyne alone who met the Americans in battle, first at the small but costly September 19 victory at Freeman’s Farm and then at the decisive battle for Saratoga, the disastrous October 7 defeat at Bemis Heights.

The British defeat was comprehensive.  Burgoyne surrendered ten days later, bringing the kingdom of France and Spain into the war on the American side.

il_794xN.920226534_c944Meanwhile Howe’s capture of Philadelphia met with only limited success, leading to his resignation as Commander in Chief of the American station and Sir Henry Clinton, withdrawing troops to New York.

As the war effort collapsed in the north, Secretary of State for the American Department Lord George Germain set his sights on a “southern strategy”.  The idea had been around since 1775, that the crown enjoyed greater support in the south.  Break the back of the rebels down there, and the war would be won.

The southern strategy began well in late 1778, with the capture of Georgia’s colonial capital at Savannah.  Patriot forces held Savannah under siege between September 16 and October 18 1779, without success.  A series of diplomatic and logistical blunders culminated in the frontal assault of October 9, one of the bloodiest American defeats of the revolution, saved largely by the intervention of 545 black colonial troops of the “Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint-Domingue” who later returned to their homeland to help win the Haitian Revolution.

Franklin-Sq-Monument
Franklin Square Monument remembers the contributions of the Haitian militia, in the Siege of Savannah

Savannah remained in British hands, for the rest of the war.  Meanwhile, the Patriot forces of General Benjamin Lincoln found themselves under siege South Carolina, penned up in Charleston by a force of some 5,000 under generals Sir Henry Clinton and Lord Charles Cornwallis.

George Washington had once departed a city in the face of superior enemy forces but Lincoln bent to the wishes of Municipal leaders, and hunkered down to defend the city.

In 1776 and again in 1779, Charleston had successfully repulsed the British invader.  In the Spring of 1780, Henry Clinton succeeded where others had failed.  Outnumbered and outsmarted with Lincoln’s forces bottled up in the city, Major General William Moultrie the hero of 1776, said “at this time, there never was a country in greater confusion and consternation.”

siege_charlestonFort Moultrie surrendered without a fight on May 7. Clinton demanded unconditional surrender the following day but Lincoln bargained for the “Honours of War”. Prominent citizens were by this time, asking Lincoln to surrender. On May 11, the British fired heated shot into the city, burning several homes. Benjamin Lincoln surrendered on May 12.

On hearing the news, American troops holding the towns of Ninety-Six and Camden surrendered, bringing the British haul to “5,266 prisoners, 311 artillery pieces, 9,178 artillery rounds, 5,916 muskets, 33,000 rounds of ammunition, 15 Regimental colours, 49 ships and 120 boats, plus 376 barrels of flour, and large magazines of rum, rice and indigo”. (H/T Wikipedia).

It was the worst American defeat, of the Revolution.

SiegeofCharlestonIn the summer of 1780, American General Horatio Gates suffered humiliating defeat at the Battle of Camden. Cornwallis idea of turning over one state after another to loyalists failed to materialize, as the ham-fisted brutality of officers like Banastre Tarleton, incited feelings of resentment among would-be supporters.  Like the Roman general Fabius who could not defeat the Carthaginians in pitched battle, General Washington’s brilliant protege Nathaniel Greene pursued a “hit & run” strategy of “scorched earth”, attacking supply trains harassing Cornwallis’ movements at every turn.

British tactics made Patriot militia stronger, not weaker and they proved it in October, defeating Loyalist militia at King’s Mountain in South Carolina, the “Greatest All-American fight of the Revolution”.

Kings-MountainThrough the Carolinas and on to Virginia, Greene’s forces pursued Cornwallis’ army. With Greene dividing his forces, General Daniel Morgan delivered a crushing defeat, defeating Tarleton’s unit at a place called Cowpens in January, 1781. The battle of Guilford Courthouse was an expensive victory, costing Cornwallis a quarter of his strength and forcing a move to the coast in hopes of resupply.

British troops were harassed that summer by Continentals under the Marquis de Lafayette. By October, Cornwallis found himself pinned down, under siege in a place called Yorktown with Washington himself before him and the French fleet of the Comte de Rochambeau, at his back.

The main British army surrendered on October 19, effectively ending the American Revolution. The ragtag militia once held in such contempt had stood toe to toe with the most powerful military on the planet.  And won.

 

April 13, 1861, Sumter

Thousands of shells were fired at Fort Sumter over 34 hours. Federal forces fired back, though vastly outgunned. For all that, the only casualty was one Confederate mule.

South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, after which the state government considered itself to be that of a sovereign nation. Six days later, US Army Major Robert Anderson quietly moved his small command from the Revolution-era Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to the as-yet to be completed Fort Sumter, a brick fortification at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.

MoultriePresident James Buchanan attempted to reinforce and resupply Anderson, via the unarmed merchant vessel “Star of the West”. Shore batteries opened up on the effort on January 9, 1861, effectively trapping Anderson and his garrison inside the only federal property in the vicinity.

The newly founded Confederate States of America couldn’t tolerate the presence of an armed federal force at the mouth of Charleston harbor, while secessionists debated whether this was South Carolina’s problem, or that of the national government, in Mobile.

Meanwhile, the Federal government refused to recognize the Confederacy, as an independent state.  Neither side wanted to be seen as the aggressor, both needing the support of the border states.

fort_sumter_drawing

Political opinion was so sharply divided at that time, that brothers literally wound up fighting against brothers.  By the time the war got going, every seceding state but South Carolina sent regiments to fight for the Union.  Even that state contributed troops.  A surprising number of northern soldiers resigned commissions and fought for the south, including Barre, Massachusetts native Daniel Ruggles, Ohio Quaker Bushrod Johnson and New York native Samuel Cooper, to name a few.  But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Confederate Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard (I love that name) was placed in charge of Charleston in March, and immediately began to strengthen the batteries surrounding the harbor.

Fort Sumter was designed for a garrison of 650 in the service of 130 guns, most of them pointed outward, positioned to defend the harbor against threats from the sea. In April 1861 there were only 60 guns, too much for Major Anderson’s 85-man garrison, almost half of whom were non-combatants:  workmen or musicians.Battle-Sumter

When Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, the resupply of Fort Sumter became the first crisis for the new administration. Lincoln notified South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens that he was sending supply ships, resulting in Beauregard’s ultimatum:  the Federal garrison was to evacuate immediately, or Confederate batteries would open fire.

Major Anderson’s response lacking acceptable specificity, shore batteries opened fire at 4:30 am on April 12th, 4003 guns firing in counter-clockwise rotation. Abner Doubleday, Federal 2nd in command and the man erroneously credited with the invention of baseball, later wrote “The crashing of the shot, the bursting of the shells, the falling of the walls, and the roar of the flames, made a pandemonium of the fort.”

Two years later at Gettysburg, Norman Jonathan Hall would lose over 200 men from his brigade, in furious fighting at a critical breach in Union lines, near the”copse of trees”.  One day, a brass plaque would mark the spot of the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy.  On this day, Lieutenant Hall raced through flames to rescue the colors, after a direct hit on the main flagpole knocked the flag to the ground.  His eyebrows were permanently burned off of his face, but Hall and two artillerymen were able to jury-rig the pole, so that once again, Old Glory flew over Fort Sumter.

Fort_sumter_1861
The Confederate flag flies over Fort Sumter, 1861

Thousands of shells were fired at Fort Sumter over 34 hours. Federal forces fired back, though vastly outgunned. For all that, the only casualty was one Confederate mule.

The only fatalities in the whole mess, occurred after the Union surrender on April 13. Firing a 100-gun salute while lowering the flag, one cannon misfired, mortally wounding privates Daniel Hough and Edward Galloway.

The following day, Colonel Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army.

The Civil War had begun, but there didn’t seem to be a single individual who understood what kind of demons had just been unleashed. Robert Rhett, the rabble rousing editor of theFort_Sumter_storm_flag_1861 Charleston Mercury Newspaper, offered to personally eat the bodies of all the slain in the coming conflict. Not wanting to be outdone, former Senator James Chesnut, Jr. said “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed,” promising to personally drink any that might be spilled.

The war between the states would end the lives of more Americans than the Revolution, WWI, WWII, and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, combined.

Charleston, 1861