Reprise To A Royal Navy Defeat

By Russell V. Tucker, Post Captain, His Britannic Majesty's Ship Richmond

Charlestown (now Charleston), of the original colony South Carolina, was a city of Revolutionary zeal, and home to four signers of the Declaration of Independence. It was successfully defended against two British attacks, but in 1780 fell to an overwhelming British force and occupied for two years. The British combined land and sea invasion began a 41 day siege which ended with the city's surrender on May 12th 1780.

The Timeline:

1779--(Nov-Dec) Unable to win a decisive battle in the northern states, the British prepare a massive combined sea and land expedition against Charlestown, under the command of Vice Admiral Arbuthnot, General Sir Henry Clinton, and Lord Cornwallis.

1779--(Dec) General Washington orders 1,400 Continentals to join the forces of General Benjamin Lincoln defending Charlestown.

1780--(Feb 10) British troops under Sir Henry Clinton land on Seabrook Island, and make preparations to lay siege to the city. South Carolina Gazette editor Peter Timothy takes a spyglass up the steeple of St. Michael's Church and reports seeing smoke from hundreds of British campfires.

1780--(March) British warships sweep past the forts guarding the harbor entrance to anchor within broadside range of the city. British Army crosses the Ashley River and establishes a line of breastworks 1,800 yards north of Charlestown's defensive line, completing their encirclement of the civilian population.

The Account:

For the British fleet to reach the inter harbor of Charlestown, an extensive exercise had to take place. Admiral Arbuthnot shifted his flag to the 44-gun fifth-rate Roebuck (the usage of HMS for His majesty's Ship did not become official until after 1850). For the next two weeks preceding the spring tide, which was the only time of the month the deep draft warships could get across the shallow bar to the Charlestown harbor, crews worked feverishly to remove the guns and supplies from Roebuck, the 50-gun Renown, and the 44-gun Romulus to the accompanying supply vessels. Thus lightened, they moved over the bar and for the next two weeks their equipment and arms were then reinstalled.

At the same time, several hundred British seamen accompanied by officers were sent ashore in ships' boats to cooperate with the army. Throughout the entire time, the British squadron was vulnerable to an American attack that never came.

From the original fleet of 96 ships, consisting of transports, supply ships, five ships-of-the-line, and five frigates, the invasion ships were now ready to sail for the inter-harbor and Charlestown proper. Only the impressive fortification on Sullivan's Island, Fort Moultrie, stood between Arbuthnot's squadron and the inner harbor. He would have to pass within a quarter of a mile of the fort as he came up the only channel. Arbuthnot faced a stronger fortification than did the previous British invasion fleet of 4 years ago, which was repelled with little loss of life or damage to the fort, but heavy losses to the British fleet and their crews.

On April 8, Arbuthnot's ships set sail and approached the fort at 3 p. m. Now knowing the construction of log braced sand walls of the fort could not be breached by cannon fire, Arbuthnot decided against anchoring and engaging in a cannonade with Fort Moultrie as the earlier British fleet had done. Instead he chose to run by the fort. Once past the stationary fort, it would be powerless to defend the city.

The flagship Roebuck and the frigate Richmond served as the van, withstanding the heaviest fire from Fort Moultire's 24 pound cannon. They were followed by four more frigates, six transports, and the 50-gun Renown covering the rear guard. After two hours, and extensive damage to the Richmond, the transport Aeolus was lost when she was disabled by the fort's fire and ran aground off Haddrell's Point. Taken under fire from American positions, she was so shot to pieces that her crew set her on fire after her equipment was removed.

The Renown suffered the most casualties with seven men killed and twenty wounded.

Once the fleet anchored, they were taken under long-range fire by batteries in the city. Most landed short and those that did hit were ineffective. But each time the ships tried to approach the city, they were taken under fire; as a result they were forced to stand off Fort Johnson for most the remainder of the siege. Shells were thrown into the city, but the damage was more psychological than physical with the main portion of the city laying almost two miles from the closest naval enemy guns.

From the steeple of St. Michael's Church, Peter Timothy watched the passage of Arbuthnot's ships and remarked:

"They really make a most noble appearance and I could not help admiring the regularity and intrepidity with which they approached, engaged, and passed Fort Moultrie. It will reflect great honor upon the Admiral and all his captains, but 'tis pity they are not friends."

On April 18 an additional 3,000 British reinforcements arrived from New York. Additional action occurred on May 7, when marines from the frigate Richmond landed and took the bridge battery to the fort without firing a shot. From here a summons was sent to Fort Moultrie to surrender. Most of the fort's troops had already been removed to the city; those that remained surrendered without firing another shot.

May 12, 1780, after a bitter struggle and siege, General Benjamin Lincoln surrenders Charlestown to the British, their greatest prize of the Revolutionary War. A two-and-a-half year occupation begins.

Forty-nine ships and some 120 boats of various kinds were taken with the fall of he city. The Royal Navy lost only one ship, and 23 seamen killed and 28 wounded. Not only had 5,500 American troops been lost to the rest of the war, but also the most powerful squadron yet assembled by the Continental Navy. Only the brig Polly continued to cruise against the enemy as late as October 1781.


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Vice Admiral Arbuthnot's van sails into Charlestown harbor after battling past Fort Moultrie (seen in the lower left). In the left foreground is the frigate Richmond, with her crew struggling to clear away the wreckage of her foretopmast after it was shot away by Moultie's deadly fire. Behind Richmond is the damaged transport Aeolus. In the right foreground are Romusus and at the extreme right is Renown in the after guard. This painting is by the marine artist Mark Myers, RSMA, of Cornwall, England. The artist went to great lengths to ensure accuracy by obtaining plans of the original ships from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.

The newly formed Royal Navy living history unit, "His Britannic Majesty's Frigate Richmond" will endeavor to bring a balance to the reenacting of naval history for this period. Visit the unit's Internet site at to discover the possibilities that await you whether you are interested in reenacting or learning more about the Royal Navy between 1775 and 1783.

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