The 14th of December is an important date in the calendar of Charleston history that deserves to be remembered and celebrated. On this day in 1782, the last of the British forces that had occupied this city for more than two-and-a-half years made their final mass exodus from our shores. After seven years of warfare and many months of preparation, the remnants of Britain’s southern army, including thousands of soldiers, loyalist civilians, and enslaved Africans, departed peacefully in a massive navy flotilla, and American soldiers and civilians immediately reoccupied the deserted town. This dramatic event marked the end of the war for Charleston, for the state of South Carolina, and, one could argue, for the United States in general. The American Revolution didn’t begin in Charleston, but the evacuation of Charleston on 14 December 1782 marked the end of our War of Independence. It was, in many ways, our Victory Day.
Charleston’s Victory Day, Part 1
Many people think that the American Revolution ended in October 1781, when British General Cornwallis surrendered to an American army under General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia. While that decisive battle ended Britain’s dream of crushing the rebellion, it certainly wasn’t the end of the war. With their victory at Yorktown in October 1781, American forces had expelled the British from every state in the union from Virginia to Massachusetts (with the solitary exception of New York City). At the same time, however, British forces continued to control parts of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. To ignore this fact is to ignore the suffering and violence endured by thousands of people in the southern states, and the sacrifice and bravery of the men and women who continued to fight against the unwelcome British occupation of their states.
Most, but certainly not all, of the fighting in the early days of the American Revolution took place in the Northern states, ranging from Boston to New York and New Jersey to Philadelphia. After three years of fighting, however, British and American forces reached a point of stalemate in which neither side seemed to hold a clear advantage. In the latter part of 1778 the British army launched a “southern campaign” in an effort to improve their military leverage on the North American continent. Shifting large numbers of soldiers and resources southward, British forces captured Savannah, Georgia, in December of 1778, and began infiltrating both South and North Carolina. After a protracted siege, the British captured Charleston on 12 May 1780, and in the following months the rest of South Carolina, and much of North Carolina, fell under their control.
In December 1780, at a very low point in the history of the American Revolution, General George Washington appointed General Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island to head south and take command of the Southern Department of the American Army. Greene brought with him new energy and new tactics that quickly resuscitated the American resistance. In a furious campaign through North and South Carolina and into Georgia in the first nine months of 1781, General Greene’s southern army fought the British at Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse, Hobkirk’s Hill, Ninety Six, Augusta, Eutaw Springs, and a number of smaller engagements. The Americans didn’t always win their battles, but they did achieve the more important strategic goal of forcing the British to withdrawal their forces from the interior and retreat towards the coastline.
By the end of September 1781, General Greene and his men had pushed the British forces out of the backcountry. When General Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown in October 1781, British forces still held Savannah, Wilmington, and the area around Charleston from Johns Island to Monck’s Corner. In the two months after Yorktown, however, American soldiers so terrified Britain’s southern army that by the end of 1781 they controlled only Savannah, the peninsula of Charleston, and few bits of land east of the Cooper River. Over the succeeding months, General Greene moved his headquarters closer and closer to Charleston.
The American and French victory over the British at Yorktown in October 1781 was indeed a major turning point in the American Revolution, but it wasn’t quite the end of the war. While most American soldiers quit the army and returned to civilian life after Yorktown, General George Washington sent others, like Lt. Col. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee of Virginia and General “Mad” Anthony Wayne of Pennsylvania to South Carolina with their respective troops. The British also changed their southern commander, sending General Alexander Leslie to take charge at Charleston in November of 1781.
At the same time, in mid-November 1781, John Rutledge, Governor of South Carolina, called for new state elections to be held in December, in preparation for a meeting of the General Assembly in January 1782. South Carolina’s executive government had lived a saddlebag existence since the surrender of Charleston in May 1780, but the recent American victories inspired Gov. Rutledge to reassert its constitutional authority. By holding elections in the mostly-liberated state, and forming a General Assembly of the House of Representatives and Senate in the little village of Jacksonboro in January and February 1782, the people of South Carolina demonstrated that their state possessed a functioning, legitimate government, independent of British control. Observers in America and abroad took notice.
When news of the American and French victory at Yorktown reached London in late 1781, it shook the British government to its core. King George III, who had vigorously supported the war from its beginning in 1775, was so crushed that he considered abdicating his crown. Public sentiment against the American war, and the Tory government that supported it, rose to a climax. On 27 February 1782, four months after Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, the British House of Commons adopted a motion to suspend offensive operations against their former colonies in North America. The Tory government collapsed, and in April 1782 the new Whig government began exploring the idea of negotiating for peace with the Americans.
Meanwhile, back in South Carolina, our General Assembly at Jacksonboro elected a new governor, John Mathews, and spent a great deal of time debating how to punish the hundreds of South Carolinians who had aided the British during the war. They drew up lists of offenders in different classes and, on 26 February 1782, passed laws to seal their fates. When the war was finally over, some loyalists would be banished, others fined, and some would have all their property confiscated by the state. News of these lists quickly reached occupied Charleston, and the British commander, General Alexander Leslie, retaliated by confiscating rebel properties and banishing anyone who lifted a finger to aid the Americans. It was a messy, tense period fueled by the fear of, and the desire for, revenge. On the 27th of March 1782, General Leslie wrote to his commander in New York that he was ill and exhausted, and pleaded (unsuccessfully) to be allowed to resign.
In April 1782, British agents reached out to American diplomat Benjamin Franklin, then residing in France, and opened an informal discussion of a peace treaty to end the war. On certain conditions, the British agents stated, Britain might be willing to acknowledge the independence of the United States. Franklin rebuffed this initial overture, however, arguing that the United States had long ago declared and already won its independence. Negotiations could only begin when the British government was prepared to acknowledge this fact. As a result of this demand, the peace process cooled for several months.
Meanwhile, back in Charleston in May of 1782, General Alexander Leslie is purported to have received secret orders from his superiors to abandon the southern states to the Americans. On the 23rd of May, Leslie wrote to General Nathanael Greene, proposing that they should settle a cease fire agreement between their respective armies. Greene refused, stating that he had neither orders nor authority from the U.S. Congress to make such an agreement. Although both Congress and Greene longed to see the end of the war, they didn’t trust the British. General Greene’s army was too small to launch a direct assault on occupied Charleston, but he was determined to annoy and harass the enemy to the end.
Under pressure from American forces surging into Georgia, British soldiers and loyalists retreated to Savannah in the late spring of 1782, and then evacuated Savannah on July 11th. Now the British dominions in their former colonies were whittled down to New York City and the peninsula of Charleston. On the 7th day of August, 1782, the South-Carolina Royal Gazette in Charleston published a brief notice stating that British forces would soon begin making preparations for “the expected withdrawal of the King’s troops from this town.” This announcement included no specific timeline, but everyone was growing impatient and frustrated.
As British supplies dwindled in the late summer of 1782, General Leslie asked General Greene to allow the British to purchase food and firewood from the Americans. If this reasonable request was refused, Leslie warned, it would become necessary to take such supplies by force. Although the Americans needed the money, and had access to a reservoir of crops in the surrounding plantations, Greene steadfastly refused. In an effort to hasten the British exodus and to weaken their ability to fight the French in the West Indies after leaving Charleston, the Americans were determined to starve the British and to frustrate their attempt to survive.
True to his word, General Leslie sent parties of British troops into the countryside beyond the town to confiscate supplies, and General Greene sent American soldiers to check their raids. This conflict over supplies led to a few armed skirmishes that unfortunately resulted in casualties. In late August 1782, Lt. Col. John Laurens and several of his fellow patriot soldiers died near the Combahee River ferry while attempting to prevent British soldiers from confiscating barrels of rice from a nearby plantation.
On the 14th of November 1782, Capt. William Wilmot of Maryland led a small band of Americans against a much larger British foraging party at Dills Bluff on James Island. Capt. Wilmot, and Lt. Moore, also of Maryland, and an enslaved man named William Smith were mortally wounded in the fight. These men probably represent the final American casualties of the War of Independence.
As blood was being spilt on James Island in mid-November 1782, the British evacuation of Charleston was already underway. To remove more than 14,000 people from the town, the British Navy had ordered a large number of warships, transport vessels, and support craft to rendezvous in Charleston harbor. As the autumn of 1782 progressed, British ships arrived and began taking on cargo. The Americans outside the town tried to pressure General Leslie to prevent the removal of confiscated property, including enslaved people as well valuable goods and booty. Leslie politely assured them that he would do his best to prevent looting and illegal seizures, but in the end the Americans were disappointed. Short of storming the town by force, they were relatively powerless to prevent the removal of a vast quantity of people and property.
Meanwhile in Paris, diplomats signed a preliminary agreement to end the war on the 30th of November 1782. Without settling any specifics about the terms of the peace, the British government acknowledged and recognized the independence of the United States of America. On the 5th of December 1782, King George III made a speech before the assembled British Parliament, informing them that a provisional peace treaty had been signed, and he (the king) had instructed his agents “to declare them Free and Independent States . . . thus admitting their separation from the crown of these kingdoms.”
I’ll save the conclusion of this dramatic story for our next installment. Tune in next week to hear about the massive British exodus from the wharves of Charleston, the American march into the deserted town, and the final steps that preceded the proclamation of peace in South Carolina in 1783.