Prelude to the Revolution
Today I’m going to begin a series of programs looking at the sparks that ignited the American Revolution in Charleston in the spring of 1775. We’ll begin with some historical background to establish the context, and then we’ll focus on events that unfolded on the streets of Charleston between April 14th and April 21st. At the same time Paul Revere was making his famous midnight ride, and British soldiers were battling Massachusetts militiamen at Lexington and Concord, events were taking place right here that represent South Carolina’s first acts of rebellion. Join me as we turn our time machines back to the tense days of early 1775.
In the early months of 1775, there was a lot of political activity in Charleston, the capital of South Carolina. There were political speeches, arguments about the boycott of British goods, and even a bit of tarring and feathering. But what was the first action made to break with British rule? Was it the “General Meeting” held in Charleston in July 1774? Was it the decision to send delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in the autumn of 1774? Was it the formation of the Provincial Congress in January 1775? No, all of that was basically political discussion, complaining, and posturing.
The first decisive action to contravene British authority was the theft of government-owned public arms and ammunition on the night of April 21st, 1775. This event is mentioned in nearly every history of the Revolutionary War in South Carolina, but historians haven’t done a very good job of explaining why this event took place, or of putting it a proper context. If the theft of arms and gunpowder was indeed a major step, then what information influenced the decision to take that action? The answer is in the mail. Information contained in the British mail that arrived in Charleston on April 14th inspired men to steal the Royal mail that arrived on April 19th. That post contained intelligence that convinced a handful of men in Charleston that further negotiation with Britain was useless, and inspired them to take decisive, rebellious action. The arrival of the British mails in mid-April 1775 and the debate about their implications are an important part of our state’s Revolutionary narrative. You won’t find much written about these mail-related events in the published history of South Carolina and the Revolution, however, because the details are rather convoluted in contemporary documents written by first-hand participants and witnesses.
These local actions occurred simultaneously with the dramatic events that unfolded in Massachusetts during that same week, were motivated by the same objectives, and were set in motion by the same intelligence that led to bloodshed at Lexington and Concord. Such observations are not intended to suggest a sort of historiographic competition between the respective states, or to diminish in any way the significance of the events that took place in Massachusetts. Rather, the purpose of examining the timing and causes of the rebellious events that took place in Charleston in mid-April 1775 is to draw attention to the commonality and simultaneity of our separate revolutionary experiences. The analysis of these details highlights the parallel nature of our respective breaks with Great Britain, and thus informs and improves our understanding of the sparks that ignited the war of American independence.
Background: American Grievances, 1764–1774:
American resistance to British parliamentary authority began in the wake of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), as Parliament enacted legislation to increase taxes on the American colonies as a means to reduce the national debt, which had increased dramatically to fund the war. First came the Sugar Act of 1764, then the Stamp Act of 1765. After a wave of coordinated protests in the colonies, including formal declarations from an inter-colonial congress held in New York, and pressure from British merchants, Parliament repealed the Stamp and Sugar Acts in the spring of 1766. A year later, in the summer of 1767, Parliament ratified a series of laws proposed by Chancellor Charles Townshend, designed to extract more revenue from the American colonies. Over the next three years, vigorous American protests and boycotts against these “Townshend Acts” led to their repeal in the spring of 1770. Immediately thereafter, American colonists enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity.
In May 1773, British Parliament ratified a law to increase the tax on tea, in an effort to strengthen the ailing East India Company (which was still suffering after the previous boycotts). In protest of this new tax, the merchants in most American ports succeeded in blocking the arrival of ships carrying East India tea. Some Boston merchants permitted the arrival of ships carrying tea, however, and in December 1773 angry protestors dumped the chests of tea into the harbor. In response to this destruction of property, Parliament passed a series of laws in the spring of 1774 to use the British Army and Navy to punish the port of Boston and the colony of Massachusetts in general. Radicalized Americans labeled these new laws “Intolerable Acts.” In the summer of 1774, citizens in each colony held meetings to discuss means to better communicate and coordinate with like-minded citizens in other colonies to maximize the impact of their collective protests. Parliament’s effort to break American resolve by isolating and making a punitive example of Massachusetts had the opposite effect: it strengthened the collective sense of solidarity and unanimity among the colonies in general.
On July 6th, 1774, large group of South Carolina planters, merchants, and mechanics (tradesmen) assembled at the Exchange building in Charleston for what was called a “General Meeting.” After reviewing the details of the “Intolerable Acts” and the deplorable state of affairs in Boston, the participants agreed to aid Boston and to send delegates to a congress of representatives from all thirteen mainland colonies. Before adjourning, the members of this “General Meeting” also created a “General Committee” of 99 members (30 Charleston merchants and mechanics and 69 planters from across the colony) to carry out their resolutions and to correspond with other the colonies in the coming months. In effect, the newly-formed General Committee represented the embryo of a non-legal, shadow government diverging from the official rule of British law in South Carolina. Many of its members also served in the legitimate elected body, the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, which continued to exist for another year and a half, but their allegiance was drifting away from Britain.
In September 1774, delegations from twelve of the American colonies convened in Philadelphia for what would become known as the first Continental Congress. On October 20th, the delegates adopted an outline of coordinated protest measures, called the Continental Association, and each colony pledged to support the others in their efforts to resist British oppression. South Carolina’s delegates to the first Continental Congress returned to Charleston in early November 1774 and immediately presented a summary of the congressional proceedings to the General Committee. Over the next several days, the members of the General Committee made plans to enlarge their activities and to make military preparations to defend themselves if the need should arise. They called for another “General Meeting” of representatives from across South Carolina, to assemble in Charleston in mid-January.
After a series of un-official elections held across South Carolina in December 1774, one hundred and eighty-four representatives from across the colony assembled in Charleston on 11 January 1775 for a week-long “General Meeting.” On the first day, the members chose Col. Charles Pinckney (1732–1782) as their president, reviewed the proceedings of the recent Continental Congress, and voted to resolve themselves into a new, quasi-legislative body known as the “Provincial Congress” of South Carolina. Over seven days of meetings in the South Carolina State House, the Provincial Congress resolved to continue communicating and building solidarity with the other colonies, to enforce rigorously the boycott on British trade outlined in the Continental Association, and to send aid to the distressed inhabitants of Massachusetts. Significantly, the members of the Provincial Congress also resolved to encourage militiamen across South Carolina to study diligently the use of firearms and to ready themselves for any circumstance that might require them to defend their families, property, and rights.
Before adjourning its first session on January 17th, 1775, the South Carolina Provincial Congress made plans to reconvene in Charleston in June. To sustain its efforts during the interim months, the Congress made two resolutions that proved to have significant ramifications. First, the representatives resolved that every member of the Provincial Congress who happened to be in the capital would form part of the Charleston General Committee, chaired by Henry Laurens, which could proceed to transact business on behalf of the Provincial Congress if a minimum of twenty-one members were present. Second, the representatives resolved to grant its president, Col. Charles Pinckney, power to appoint a “Secret Committee” to act during the recess of the Provincial Congress, if he believed circumstances warranted the creation of such a body. In the spring of 1775, it was the work of these two non-legal committees that would steer South Carolina to the brink of rebellion.
The Waiting Game of Early 1775:
In late January 1775, the people of Charleston, of South Carolina, and of all the colonies, were waiting anxiously for news from London. Everyone knew that the British Parliament would convene on January 19th and resume their debates about the tense political showdown brewing in the American colonies. Rumors circulated that King George III might use his influence to convince Parliament to pacify the Americans by removing the military presence in Boston, while others predicted that Parliament might convince the king to send more even troops to subdue protests across the colonies. The stakes were high, and tensions in the colonies increased as the waiting continued.
David Ramsay, a Charleston physician active at that time, recalled this season of anxiety in his History of the Revolution of South Carolina (1785), 1: 28: “During the first three months of the year 1775, hopes were entertained that Great-Britain would follow the same line of policy which before had led her to repeal the stamp-act [in 1766]. The sanguine friends of America presumed, that a rigid adherence to their resolutions of non-importation and non-exportation, would induce the mother country to recede from her demands. Warm with these expectations, they looked for the first vessels from Great-Britain [bringing news], after the winter session of parliament, with an ardour not known before.”
Their waiting wasn’t simply open-ended or vague. Rather, there was a relatively predictable timetable for the arrival of the information they desired. Official news from London travelled to North America on a monthly schedule by way of a pair of government-sponsored packet boat fleets (for more information on this topic, see last week’s essay). The northern branch included five packet boats that took turns sailing a monthly route from Falmouth, on the southwest coast of Cornwall, directly to New York. There the postmaster separated the official mail packets for each the northern colonies and handed them to post riders who carried them north to the New England colonies and south to the mid-Atlantic colonies. The southern branch of this maritime postal system included four packet boats that took turns sailing a monthly route from Falmouth directly to Charleston, where our postmaster likewise separated and distributed the official mails for North Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida. In the early months of 1775, therefore, all American eyes looked to New York and to Charleston for the arrival of the monthly packet boat carrying the latest official news of parliamentary actions.
The packet boat Earl of Sandwich arrived in Charleston on February 2nd, carrying the official December mail from London. Because the new session of Parliament didn’t begin until January 19th, however, the Sandwich brought no firm news, only more rumors. Five weeks later, on March 12th, the packet boat Eagle arrived in Charleston, having left Falmouth on January 19th. “By the Eagle packet boat,” stated the South-Carolina Gazette of March 13th, 1775, “we have no certain accounts [of] what is likely to be determined in regard to the present situation of affairs in America. These affairs were to come under the consideration of Parliament the 19th of that month; but, from the great majority [of Members of Parliament] that appeared, very early in the session, in favour of a question unfavourable to us, we have no reason to look for relief, but in our own virtue, firmness and unanimity.” In other words, the anxious citizens of Charleston were now growing increasingly pessimistic about the chances of a peaceful resolution of the present crisis.
Doubts about the willingness of British Parliament to withdraw its military threats against Massachusetts and the other colonies were well founded. On February 2nd, after two weeks of intense debate, Parliament voted to officially declare Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion. By doing so, the British government declared that the peaceful protests and acts of civil disobedience, supported, cheered, and repeated in twelve other colonies, were tantamount to treason. On February 9th, Parliament sent an address to King George III, declaring the colonies to be in a state of rebellion and offering to use the military might of the British Empire to restore order. The king agreed and asked his government to augment its military presence in Massachusetts and beyond by sending additional troops, arms, and warships. In effect, these measures amounted to a declaration of war, but it would be many weeks before the colonists on the other side of the Atlantic would learn of these developments.
Official news of Parliament’s military escalation was dispatched to the colonies by way of the Royal packet boat service. On February 16th, 1775, a pair of packet boats departed Falmouth: the Harriot carried mail packets to New York for the northern colonies, and the Swallow carried packets to Charleston for the southern colonies. Because Boston and Massachusetts were the focus of the crisis, however, that special circumstances called for a special delivery. Instead of using the normal monthly packet service, the British government sent a special dispatch vessel, the HMS Nautilus, to carry secret orders directly to Gen. Thomas Gage, the new military governor in Boston. The northern packet, the Harriot, arrived in New York on April 12th. The Swallow arrived in Charleston on Friday, April 14th, the same day that the HMS Nautilus dropped anchor in Boston harbor.
The mail delivered to General Gage in Boston on April 14th included instructions from William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the colonies, ordering him to seize any arms and gunpowder stockpiled by the rebellious Americans and to arrest their leaders. Someone also leaked this information to the rebels, who, on April 18th, raised the alarm for the local militia to assemble and thwart the British mission. The fatal skirmishes at Lexington and Concord on April 19th were the result of Americans trying to prevent the British army from confiscating military supplies. Because of the slow method of overland communication between the colonies, however, folks in Charleston didn’t learn about the outbreak of hostilities in Massachusetts until the evening of May 8th.
In the meantime, back in South Carolina, the royal packet boat Swallow, under the command of Captain William Copeland, arrived in Charleston harbor on April 14th after a tedious passage of fifty-nine days across the Atlantic (see South-Carolina and American General Gazette, 14–18 April 1775). Capt. Copeland brought his vessel to anchor in the harbor and brought the Royal mail bags to town by way of a small launch rowed by members of the crew. After reaching one of the wharves along the Cooper River waterfront, the captain marched down East Bay Street to a three-story brick building at the north corner of Longitude Lane. Here the widow Mary Stevens operated a Coffee House, with accommodations for a few guests upstairs, and hosted South Carolina’s only post office in a front room facing the bay. Her young son, Jervis Henry Stevens (better known as Henry Stevens), helped with the family business when he wasn’t teaching harpsichord, and also served as the secretary to his Majesty’s Deputy Postmaster General for the Southern District of North America, Mr. George Roupell. Postmaster Roupell, a well-established Tory placeman in Charleston, collected a salary from the king, but 25-year-old Henry Stevens did all the work in the post office.
Having departed from Falmouth on February 16th, the packet boat Swallow brought newspaper reports and letters announcing that Parliament had declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion, and that King George III and Parliament had agreed to send additional troops to crush the American protests. This information, in the words of historian John Drayton (1766–1822), “put an end to every hope of accommodation.” In his Memoirs of the American Revolution, assembled from the notes of his father, William Henry Drayton (1742–1779), John Drayton explained the local impact of the parliamentary news that arrived in Charleston on April 14th: “These accounts, announced to America, that her disputes with Great Britain were to be decided by arms. In this light, the people considered it: and with fortitude, indignation, and concern, they appeared to accept the challenge. The prudent and cautious, now admitted our complaints were unattended to; they warmed, with the ardor of their fellow citizens; thought, impelled thought; and action, excited to action; until, wrapped together in one bond of union, their strength was consolidated, and their measures became decided. It was now, the crisis was arriving, which was destined to try men’s souls.”
Shortly after the arrival of the Swallow on Friday, April 14th, a number of members of the Charleston General Committee [at least twenty-one members] were preparing to gather for their regular weekly meeting on Wednesday afternoon, April 19th, at Charles Ramadge's tavern at the northeast corner of Broad and Church Streets. The S.C. Commons House of Assembly, the legitimate government body that included most of the members of the General Committee, was scheduled to reconvene on Thursday, April 20th, and the men wanted to discuss the latest bad news from England and to coordinate their political strategies. “Scarcely had they assembled,” wrote John Drayton, “when they were informed the British packet had arrived; and was come to an anchor. The [General] Committee therefore adjourned, until the next day; that in the meantime, the intelligence received by her [the packet], might be known, and digested” (Drayton, Memoirs, 1: 218–19).
The unexpected packet boat that interrupted the meeting of the General Committee was the Le DeSpencer, commanded by Captain William Pond, which departed Falmouth on March 13th and arrived in Charleston on April 19th after a very rapid passage of thirty-seven days (see South-Carolina and American General Gazette, 18–21 April 1775). Learning of her arrival, several members of the General Committee, including Thomas Corbett, William Henry Drayton, and John Neufville, decided to walk down to East Bay Street and watch for the mail to be delivered to the post office inside Mary Stevens’s Coffee House. Lingering along the bay near Longitude Lane, the men waited for Captain Pond to deliver the Royal mail bags to the post office. The captain eventually arrived late in the afternoon, deposited the mail, and departed. On the evening of Wednesday, April 19th, postal secretary Henry Stevens was inside the brick building, alone, “assorting the letters,” as he later wrote, when three men came calling for the Royal mail. With or without his consent, Stevens learned, they had come to take the mail.
Unfortunately, I’m out of time for this week, so tune in next week when we’ll return to East Bay Street on the evening of April 19th, 1775, to witness the discovery of incendiary news in the stolen mail that changed the course of history here in Charleston, in South Carolina, and in the United States.