Today in History: Americans Suffer their Worst Defeat of the Revolution (1780)

Today in History: Americans Suffer their Worst Defeat of the Revolution (1780)

Matthew Weber - May 12, 2017

On May 12, 1780, the Americans suffered their worst defeat of the entire Revolution. The battle of Charleston, or as it would come to be known, the Siege of Charleston, took place over the course of six weeks. It started March 29, 1780.

This was the beginning of the British’s southern campaign after their failure to gain traction in the north, specifically in Pennsylvania. By the end of 1779, the British were in trouble in the northern colonies. They had suffered two major defeats and several smaller setbacks.

The commanders of the British Army were pressured politically to deliver victory, especially with the failures they had suffered through in 1779.

Today in History: Americans Suffer their Worst Defeat of the Revolution (1780)
Siege of Charleston. The Patriot

After six weeks of constant battle and siege, the Americans were forced to surrender. They had attempted to surrender several times before during the month of April, but the negotiations fell flat, as the commander of the American troops wanted the “honors of war.”

The honors of war is a set of military privileges given to a surrendering army. It is meant to symbolize valor and honor in the eye of defeat. Traditionally, the army was allowed to march out of the defeated area to the sound of drums before being taken as Prisoner’s of War.

Benjamin Lincoln, the commander of the American troops at Charleston, attempted twice to surrender with the stipulation that the British gave him and his troops the honors of war ceremony, but both times the British refused and continued the siege.

On May 12, 1780, the Americans finally knew they couldn’t continue and arranged to surrender without conditions. This was a huge defeat for the Americans, especially in terms of manpower. While the casualties were minimal, the surrender at Charleston cost the Americans over 5,000 troops who were captured, more than 300 artillery pieces, almost 10,000 rounds for that artillery, almost 6,000 guns, and many other supplies. They also lost 49 ships and 120 boats, which was a huge hit to their navy.

Today in History: Americans Suffer their Worst Defeat of the Revolution (1780)
Map of the Siege of Charleston. West Point

It was a complicated loss for the Americans as well, because of loyalists in the south. There were many in the southern states who saw the Revolution as folly, and sided with the British. After the defeat of the Americans at Charleston, the British were able to have a much closer relationship with those loyalists.

They were able to use those people to sow dissension in the south, and even sparked a small civil war between colonists. In the end it didn’t work, because the Americans were able to regroup and drive the British out of South Carolina, and into Virginia where they would eventually surrender in October of 1781.

The American Revolution would rage on until 1783 when the British and Americans would sign a peace treaty officially giving Americans independence and creating the United States of America. It wouldn’t be the last time the US and British would face off, as they would fight once again in the War of 1812, which featured a full on invasion by the British, and the attempted arson of Washington D.C., the nation’s capital.