The British Evacuation of Charleston
George Washington and the bulk of the Continental Army operated in the northern colonies during most of the American Revolution. However, South Carolina saw over 200 battles during the conflict – more than any other state. The battles were smaller in scale than those fought up north, but often more vicious, as the fighting was mostly an intra-state civil war pitting neighbors in Patriot and Loyalist militias against each other.
The British had followed up the early successes of their southern strategy and the capture of Savannah, Georgia, in early 1779, by expanding their military operations northward into neighboring South Carolina. They landed an expeditionary force south of Charleston in February of 1780, then marched on and besieged the port city, forcing its defenders to surrender on May 12th.
The British found Loyalist sentiment to be strong in South Carolina, especially in its coastal regions whose economy relied heavily on trade with the British West Indies. About 5000 South Carolinians – a significant portion of its adult white male population of arms bearing age – fought in Loyalist units against the Patriots. Thousands more collaborated with the British in a variety of ways, furnishing them with supplies and intelligence.
As in neighboring Georgia, the British position in South Carolina seemed to be excellent, despite frequent fighting in the colony’s backcountry between Loyalists and Patriots. Then it all went to pieces for the British when Cornwallis was defeated at Yorktown. In December of 1782, while a preliminary peace deal was pending between Britain and the American colonies, the Redcoats agreed to evacuate Charleston and not destroy the city, in exchange for the Patriots’ promise of safe passage.
Accordingly, the Redcoats and their allies made an orderly withdrawal from the city’s fortifications, which were occupied soon thereafter by the Continental army. On December 14th, 1782, the British and their Loyalists, including 5000 slaves who had fled to British lines, completed their embarkation on a British fleet and sailed away. Until then, the city had been named “Charles Town”, but after the British evacuation, it was rechristened to its present “Charleston”, because that sounded less British.
Nearly 5000 white Loyalists had left with the British, but most South Carolinian Loyalists had stayed behind. The restored Patriot state government adopted a policy of reconciliation towards them that stood in stark contrast to the vindictiveness in neighboring George, and proved to be the most moderate of all the states. Pardons had been freely offered during the war to Loyalists who switched sides, and those who failed to do so were fined 10% of the value of their property. Legislation was passed declaring the property of 232 Loyalists liable for confiscation, but most of them successfully appealed for an exemption.