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Mike Duncan (00:00):
Okay, so last time we ended with the newly minted British Commander in Chief, Henry Clinton, fending off the American attack at Monmouth Courthouse and escaping with his army up to New York City. Just barely unable to prevent this escape, George Washington then led his own forces north, eventually making a headquarters on the Hudson River. The exile of the Continental Congress, meanwhile, finally ended, and the delegates returned to Philadelphia, which was now under the military governorship of Benedict Arnold, who was given the command in part because the injuries he sustained at Saratoga precluded a field command.
Now one crucial factor in Washington’s decision to attack Clinton that I did not talk about last week was the imminent arrival of the French fleet. It was due to arrive literally any day now, and Washington hoped that if he could tie the British up long enough, that the French might appear and block any possible escape by sea for the British. And it almost worked. After breaking out of Monmouth Courthouse, Clinton did indeed run northeast for Sandy Hook, a spit that juts north out of New Jersey. From there, he put his men on boats to complete the journey to New York City. The French fleet finally arrived as this ferrying operation was underway, but they were unable to cross the sandbar that makes entering New York Harbor somewhat treacherous, and Clinton was able to make good his escape and hole up in New York City, which was all but impossible to attack.
But though New York could not be gotten at, the fact that Washington now had an allied navy greatly expanded his strategic options. So if the big fish could not be fried, then it best turned to the littler fish. And so Washington and the admiral of the French fleet, the Comte d’Esteigne, coordinated on a plan to go up and retake Newport, Rhode Island, which was occupied by the British with a garrison of about 3,000 men. So at the end of July 1778, the French sailed north, while the Americans started funneling troops, both local militia and a strong contingent of continentals under Nathaniel Green and the Marquis de Lafayette, into Rhode Island, and soon they would total about 10,000 men.
Spies quickly revealed to Henry Clinton what the Americans were up to, and he scrambled to provide Newport relief. First 20 ships under Admiral Howe, and then, as soon as the weather permitted, a convoy of about 4,000 regular troops.
Now unfortunately for the Americans, all the coming attack on Newport did was prove that the alliance between the French and Americans was great in theory, but would take some time to really work in practice. The man running the show up in Newport was Brigadier General John Sullivan. Sullivan was the son of Irish immigrants to America, so as you can imagine for him, this war was as much about an intense loathing of the British as any noble fight for freedom and liberty. But his lower-class Irish upbringing did not leave him with much love for French aristocrats either, and for their part, those French aristocrats weren’t much for low-born Irish revolutionaries. Right from the get-go, coordinating the attack on Newport was rough going, as Sullivan attempted to simply issue orders to disdain, which disdain was not super interested in obeying.
But despite the friction, the plans for a joint operation finally came together, and the attack was set to launch August 10, 1778. The Newport is located on the southwest tip of a skinny island that ran north-south off the mainland. The plan was for the Americans to move down and trap the British inside the city, while the French landed 4,000 men of their own on the western shore, and then arrayed their ships in a tight blockade. The combined land and sea attack was sure to break the British garrison in no time.
But on August the 9th, the day before this was all supposed to happen, Sullivan spied an opportunity to get the jump on the British, and he moved down early, which only confirmed the French opinion that these Americans weren’t disciplined enough to really count on. I mean, right off the bat, they’re jumping the gun. Then the 20 British ships under Admiral Howe appeared on the horizon. Disain decided that there was no sense getting trapped with only the American rabble to support him, so instead of landing the French troops, he pulled out of the harbor completely. For two days, the French and British fleets maneuvered around each other until an intense gale ravaged them both. The British wound up so bad off that Howe had to simply pull out of the area completely. The French, meanwhile, were scattered all over the place.
But despite the sudden French withdrawal, General Sullivan pressed on. He was still running 10,000 men against just 3,000 inside the city, and those are pretty good numbers. By August the 15th, he was digging fortifications to carry on with the siege. Over the next couple of days, the battered French ships started to return back to port, but Disain had seen quite enough, thank you very much. When as much of the fleet as possible had regrouped, he announced that he was sailing his fleet up to Boston for repairs, taking with him any real chance of capturing Newport.
When the French sailed away, the American militia forces were like, okay, we’re done here, and they started heading home. Sullivan tried to carry on through these obviously Operation Killing setbacks. Lafayette raced up to Boston to try to convince Disain to change his mind. But by the end of the month, Sullivan finally admitted that if he didn’t retreat, his force of now just 5,000 men would soon be trapped. So he started to pull off the island, which the British garrison in Newport took as the perfect opportunity to strike, and the retreating Americans were forced to turn and fight.
A day’s worth of battle exhausted both sides, but in the end Sullivan was able to complete his withdrawal. And just in time, too. The very next day, those additional 4,000 regulars sent by Clinton, delayed by the same bad weather that had crippled the British and French navies, finally arrived. So the Battle of Rhode Island went down merely as an awkward first date for the French and Americans, rather than a relationship-ending catastrophe.
With Newport now strengthened and New York City all but unapproachable, both George Washington and Henry Clinton settled into an unsatisfying stalemate. Neither were happy about it, but it appears that of the two, Clinton was actually even less happy than Washington. He was not enthusiastic about the ministry’s plan to turn the war south, especially after he received orders to send 3,500 men down to Georgia and another 5,000 down to the West Indies. That would leave him with just enough troops to hold what he had and maybe raid around a little bit, but not much more. Which is just about all the ministry wanted him to do anyway.
After reluctantly dispatching these forces in November and December 1778, the miserable Clinton sent a letter of resignation back to London in early 1779. But despite his pleading, it was rejected. King George declared Clinton the only man left who could pull off a win in North America. Clinton no doubt sunk even further into his chair after receiving this glowing vote of confidence.
So unfortunately for everyone, us included, 1779 turned out to be as fragmented as it was inconclusive. There were engagements all over the place, but none were really decisive nor super important to the outcome of the war. For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to stick with Clinton and Washington for now as they skirmish around each other in New York. Then we will double back and follow DeStaine and his fleet as they make a run through the Caribbean. And then we’ll double back again for the British capture of Savannah Georgia, the failed attempt by the French and Americans to retake Savannah Georgia, before finally depositing ourselves in 1780 with Henry Clinton’s invasion of South Carolina and the capture of Charleston. Ready to try and follow a bunch of random roads that wind up leading nowhere? Awesome. Let’s do it.
After his resignation was rejected, Henry Clinton emerged from winter and did his best to follow orders, which included using the Navy to raid coastal communities to disrupt rebel trade, a strategy that the ministry now loved, but he personally loathed. Raids of Connecticut and the Chesapeake Bay were successful. Stores, public buildings, and supply houses were easily destroyed, but not to much long-term strategic effect.
The only real engagement of the year, which similarly did not have much long-term strategic effect, was the Battle of Stony Point, fought over a fortified spit that jutted out into the Hudson River about 30 miles north of New York City and that commanded an important river crossing.
In late May, Clinton personally led his reduced army up the Hudson. He easily took Stony Point, hoping that this would merely be the first move in a longer-range campaign to disrupt the American supply lines enough to force them to come down from their fortified positions and fight a real battle. He had been promised reinforcements from Britain, but the ships crossing the Atlantic were soon long overdue, and Clinton was forced to withdraw back to New York City, leaving a garrison of about 750 in control of Stony Point.
After Clinton fell back down the Hudson, Washington ordered General Anthony Wayne, who was about to become known to history as Mad Anthony Wayne for his conduct in the battle, to take 1,500 men and go retake Stony Point. Working under guidelines laid out by Washington, Wayne led what looked an awful lot like a suicide mission when he stormed the British position from three directions in the middle of the night using only bayonets. Amazingly, it took Wayne’s men just 30 minutes to capture the British position while suffering almost no casualties. It was a small but morale-boosting victory for the Americans, who hadn’t really had much to cheer about since Saratoga.
As per Washington’s instructions, Wayne then destroyed the fortifications, hauled off the cannons, and abandoned the site. Clinton eventually sent some men up to retake it later in the summer, but by then the British commander-in-chief was deep into planning the invasion of South Carolina, and the whole back-and-forth over Stony Point wound up being a pointless dead-end for everyone.
Further to the west, out on the New York frontier, General John Sullivan, he of the Siege of Newport, was dispatched on a not particularly glorious campaign to exact revenge on loyalists in upstate New York, and particularly their Iroquois allies. The Patriot presses had been inflamed in 1778 by Indian attacks on settlers in the Wyoming Valley out on the New York frontier, and then somewhat closer in at Cherry Valley a few months later. In both cases, non-combatants were specifically targeted and killed.
Over the summer of 1779, Sullivan ran around with about 4,000 men on a deliberate scorched earth campaign that saw them burn or destroy some 40 Indian villages, killing who they could and driving off the rest. It wasn’t pretty, but it did help the Americans solidify control of the North, which they would not relinquish for the rest of the war.
So that’s 1779, as far as Clinton and Washington are concerned. All, pretty much, much ado about nothing. While this Nothing Much was playing out in New York, a similar bout of Nothing Much was playing out down South. And by down South, I don’t mean Georgia, which we’ll get to in a minute. I mean the West Indies. Now, I don’t want to get too much into it because it carries us a bit far afield, but we need to at least touch on events in the West Indies so we can understand where the French have gotten off to, and why Clinton has to peel off men he really doesn’t have to spare from a war he was having a really hard time winning.
When we last left the Comte d’Esteigne and his fleet, they had sailed away for Boston. After refusing Lafayette’s police to come back to Newport, d’Esteigne repaired his battered fleet and then announced that he had decided to go down and attack British positions in the Caribbean. His broad mandate gave him all the authority he needed to turn a deaf ear to American police to stay, pull anchor, and just sail away in November 1778. Coincidentally enough, the French sailed on the same day as the 5,000 men the ministry ordered Clinton to send down to the West Indies put out to sea.
When these two fleets arrived in the Caribbean, they found their comrades already going at it, with each side having seized an island from the other. With everyone now reinforced, a couple of indecisive naval battles were fought in December 1778, but after that both the French and British decided to just sort of keep an eye on each other for the next six months. In June 1779, though, the British concentrated forces to protect a crucial convoy, and d’Esteigne struck at the under-defended British colonies of St. Vincent and Granada. The British fleet commander, Admiral John Byron, who is the grandfather of Lord Byron by the way, rushed out to confront the French, but he rushed in too quickly, believing he had superior numbers which boy he really did not. Though he didn’t lose any ships, Byron’s fleet was beat to a pulp and basically knocked out of commission.
In a mysterious bit of I don’t even know what, d’Esteigne decided to follow up his decimation of the British fleet by doing… nothing. He quietly returned to French ports and repaired his fleet, and took no further action. When Byron sailed back to Britain in August, d’Esteigne decided to finally succumb to the endless pleading by the Americans to come back up and for god’s sake help us. d’Esteigne’s failure to capitalize on the sizable naval advantage he now enjoyed meant that 1779 was nothing but a huge missed opportunity for the French. But at least d’Esteigne can make up for his lackluster performance in the West Indies by helping the Americans retake Savannah. Right?
So rewinding the clock again, shortly after Henry Clinton sent off the five thousand men he didn’t want to send to the West Indies down to the West Indies, he sent the thirty five hundred men he didn’t want to send down to Georgia down to Georgia. This mixed force of British regulars and Hessians landed just south of Savannah two days before Christmas 1778. The only real city to speak of in Georgia, the British expedition arrived at the outskirts of town a week later and found it to be easy pickings. There were few fortifications to speak of, and the 850 Americans guarding the city were totally outnumbered and outgunned. Then they got badly flanked when a slave led a British column through the swamps west of town.
In the brief, practically no more than a skirmish that followed, the Americans bolted in panic, and the British took the city after losing just three men. Then they marched up and took Augusta, the only other thing that could possibly call the city in Georgia, and they spent the summer of 1779 extending their control across the whole rest of the state. Coordinating with local loyalists, of whom there were many, is remembered this was the one colony that had not sent a delegation to the First Continental Congress.
After the capture of Savannah, the American patriots in the south braced for more. But luckily for them, more was not yet on the way, as Clinton was busy skirmishing around Stony Point and had not yet headed south. So the American forces tried to consolidate and maybe put together a plan to march down and reassert control over Georgia. The American general now in charge of the southern department was a man named Benjamin Lincoln, who had been sent south to recuperate after being wounded at Saratoga. But it was quickly apparent to him that any plan to retake Savannah was going to require an assist from the French Navy, who were, unfortunately, currently running around doing not much of anything in the West Indies.
So almost all of 1779 passed before any action could be taken, with Lincoln headquartered in Charleston. But then, kind of out of the blue, a few French ships arrived bearing the incredible news that disdain was on his way to Savannah with 25 gunships and 4,000 soldiers. Lincoln dropped what he was doing and led 2,000 men south. Hopefully, this second joint American-French operation would go better than Newport.
The French landed south of Savannah in mid-September 1779, and Lincoln showed up shortly thereafter. Initially, disdain, who personally led the French ground forces, refused to directly attack the city. Instead, he set up artillery to bomb the British into submission. The Americans and French wound up shelling the city for almost a week straight before disdain decided that this wasn’t going fast enough and finally agreed to a frontal assault. Georgia was not treating his men well, and he frankly wanted to get the hell out of there as soon as possible. So on October the 9th, 1779, the French and Americans attacked, and it quickly turned into a bloody fiasco.
The main attack was supposed to be surprise, launched in darkness and covered by diversionary attacks to confuse the British garrison. But the main Allied column got lost in some heavy fog as they picked their way through a swamp, so the attack didn’t start until after sun-up, so see later element of surprise. Then it turned out that the spot that disdain had selected to hit because it was the weakest part of the defenses turned out to be one of the strongest parts of the defenses. So the assault was quickly stopped dead in its tracks and then turned into a bloodbath. Disdain was himself wounded twice, and the battered American and French were forced to retreat after taking heavy losses.
Eventually whipped, Lincoln and Disdain officially agreed to call the siege just over a week later. Savannah would remain in British hands until the end of the war. There is one last little interesting note about the siege of Savannah I want to mention, because it will be of interest to us not in our next revolution, the French Revolution, but in the one after that, the Haitian Revolution. Because when Disdain came north, he brought with him about 500 Haitian fighters, many of whom would help form the officer corps of the Revolutionary Armies who will battle it out after the slave revolt of 1791. So let’s watch out for those guys.
And heck, before we move on, I may as well mention that Disdain will meet his end in our next revolution, the French Revolution, because he was closely connected to the royal family and standing by Marie Antoinette right to the bitter end, and he will be marched to the guillotine in 1794. Okay, so that brings us to the end of 1779, that fractured and inconclusive year of fractured inconclusiveness. And it brings us finally, after all the talk, to Henry Clinton’s invasion of South Carolina.
Leaving behind an adequate garrison to New York City under the command of a Hessian general, Clinton would wind up leading about 10,000 men south, where they would link up with loyalist militias and already on-the-scene regulars, and form an army of about 14,000 men to go take Charleston. Once that was done, reasserting British control of the Carolinas would be an easy warm-up for the tougher challenges that would face them ahead in Virginia.
Clinton’s army spent a rotten four weeks at sea, being battered by storms before they finally put in near the mouth of the Savannah River, where they picked up some additional forces. After resting for a bit, the British put back out to sea, finally arriving just south of Charleston in February 1780. Now though the coming siege of Charleston turned out to be a nice win for Clinton, getting there was not, in fact, half the fun.
His first headache came in the form of an 86-year-old admiral named Mariot Arbuthnot — think I’m getting that name right. Because as it turns out, Clinton and Arbuthnot were actually equal in rank, British incoherence once again rearing its ugly head. So when they started disagreeing over strategy and tactics, or let’s say something as simple as where to land the army, there wasn’t a final decision maker to say, we’re going to land here. Then during the siege itself, Arbuthnot tended to alternate between the extremes of lethargy and recklessness, with the flips seemingly designed to frustrate Clinton as much as possible.
Clinton’s second headache came in the form of his old comrade and now second-in-command Lord Cornwallis, who was now officially sick of being anyone’s second-in-command. He thought he had done enough to merit an independent army, and wasn’t happy about being stuck under Clinton. The two would begin feuding almost at once, and pretty soon would be talking only through letters and vague passive-aggressive tones, which served the British war effort not even a little bit.
After finally landing his forces where he wanted to land them, Clinton set out through the South Carolina swamp to try to get around behind Charleston. And if slogging through the South Carolina swamp doesn’t count as a third major headache, I don’t know what does. Now all of these headaches were somewhat relieved by the fact that the American fortifications at Charleston were not in fact going to prove particularly formidable.
Charleston is located at the bottom of a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water. Benjamin Lincoln, long since returned from Savannah, just assumed outright that any attack was going to come from the sea, so the land-facing fortifications were utterly neglected, consisting of a few redoubts that were not even connected to each other. From the seaside, where Lincoln expected the attack, he had two forts that were just now being worked back into shape. All Lincoln, his roughly 3,000 men, and the citizens of Charleston really had going for them was the fact that a sandbar that ran just under the surface of the water would make it really hard for Arbuthnot to bring his heavy ships into the harbor.
By the end of March, Clinton was finally able to swing his way around, then come at the unsuspecting Americans from above, and on April the 1st, he and his army were camped just a thousand yards from Charleston. Lincoln and the American garrison scrambled to prevent an instantaneous collapse of the line, and though the fortifications would ultimately prove inadequate, for the moment, they did give Clinton pause about a full-scale assault.
With Charleston now surrounded, though, time and resources were on the British side, and so Clinton commenced with a traditional European approach to siege craft, which involved digging out an entrenchment running parallel to the enemy fortifications, and then, when that one was complete, digging forward and starting another parallel line, slowly cutting off the ground between besieger and besieged. All through April, the British steadily advanced through random and sporadic American shelling.
By the end of April, Clinton had completed his third parallel, and was trying to get Admiral Arbuthnot, who had been putting ships across the sandbar to sail up the Copper River to help close the noose once and for all, but Arbuthnot of course stalled and made excuses and never did go up the river. But even with this strategic bickering getting in the way, inside the city, Benjamin Lincoln could see that the situation was hopeless, and against the begging and pleading of the citizens of Charleston, he attempted to surrender on April the 21st, hoping to get Clinton to let him march out with his men in exchange for the city. But Clinton turned him down flat.
The creeping British kept creeping until the second week of May, when a sharp artillery battle broke out that wound up setting fire to the wood homes inside the city, forcing the residents to admit that it was time to give up. Good terms, bad terms, whatever. We just need to give up. So on May the 12th, 1780, the Americans surrendered Charleston to the British. Officers and militiamen were paroled on the promise that they would not rejoin the fight, while the regular Continental soldiers were taken as prisoners of war.
The siege of Charleston had taken its toll on the already disenchanted Henry Clinton. His lot in life had come down to feuding with a curmudgeon of an admiral and bickering with an ambitious and self-possessed second-in-command. On June the 1st, Clinton issued what he thought would be the foundation of the British recovery of South Carolina. All rebels who laid down their arms would be given clemency.
But the announcement had zero impact on the patriot partisans who weren’t about to just give up, while simultaneously annoying the loyalist partisans, who were frankly offended the British would even consider offering clemency to these damned rebel dogs. Frustrated and annoyed, Clinton elected to give Cornwallis the independent command he had been angling for. A week after issuing his proclamation, Clinton took 4,000 men and returned to New York City where he could stew in peace. Cornwallis was left with the rest of the army and orders to subdue South Carolina, then make his way through North Carolina into Virginia.
Next week, we will stay in the South with Cornwallis as he finally gets to enjoy the independent command he had sought for so long. But Cornwallis would soon learn what Gage and Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton had all learned before him. The Americans just did not understand how wars were supposed to be won, that when you are beaten and beaten and beaten again, you’re supposed to give up. Cornwallis will wind up just as bitter and frustrated as every other British general who had ever set foot on American soil.
We’re going to leave off today with a short programming note that next week, and then again in May, I’ll be leading with an ad for our good friends at Harry’s Razors. If you listen to other podcasts, you probably know about them already, but now you’ll get to know about them from me too.
- John Byron
- George Washington
- Benedict Arnold
- Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette
- Anthony Wayne
- Benjamin Lincoln
- Marie Antoinette
- Henry Clinton (British Army officer, born 1730)
- Mariot Arbuthnot
- Nathanael Greene
- John Sullivan (general)
- Siege of Newport by Thomas C. Amory (Thomas Coffin): https://amzn.to/3hu04dd
The Episode That Wouldn't Die.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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