In our last episode, we talked about the events of the American Revolution leading up to this evacuation, in an effort to understand the context of this big event and its significance. Let’s pick up the story in early December 1782, when the end of the long war was quite literally in sight. Most of the American army in South Carolina, consisting of several hundred men under the leadership of General Nathanael Greene, was camped on a number of plantations on the west side of the Ashley River. When intelligence suggested that the British forces in urban Charleston were nearing the end of their preparations for departure, General Greene gave the order for the American advance guard to cross the river and investigate.
During the late evening of Thursday, December 12th, and the early morning of Friday the 13th, General Anthony Wayne crossed the river at Ashley Ferry with three hundred light-infantrymen, eighty men from the cavalry legion commanded by Lt. Col. Henry Lee, and twenty artillerymen with two six pounders. After crossing into what is now North Charleston, they marched south towards the British lines of fortification across on the Neck of the peninsula, near Colonel Thomas Shubrick’s plantation called Belvedere (today that’s an industrial site immediately north of what is now Magnolia Cemetery). Their orders from General Greene were “to endeavour as much as possible to harass the retiring [British] garrison.” Before any offensive operations began, however, a civilian named Maurice Simmons arrived from the town bearing a message from General Alexander Leslie, the commander of the remaining British troops. Leslie proposed that if the Americans would allow the British to withdraw from the town without being harassed, and without any impediment, he (General Leslie) would pledge that the departing troops would do no damage to the town and would not fire on the Americans or the town after the British were safely on board their vessels in the harbor. If, however, the Americans tried to harass the departing troops, then General Leslie could not be held accountable for what violent consequences might follow. General Wayne readily agreed to the peaceful proposition, and the parties agreed that the Americans would advance toward the town after the firing of a cannon on the morning of Saturday the 14th. General Wayne then withdrew his troops to Accabee plantation (which is now Stark Industrial Park, on the south side of Azalea Drive) where they spent the night and tried “to prepare themselves, to make as handsome an appearance as circumstances would admit of, on the following morning.”
Meanwhile, west of the Ashley River, General Nathanael Greene, General William Moultrie, and several hundred American troops were still camped at Middleton Place. On the morning of Saturday, December 14th 1782, they all decamped and began crossing the river at Ashley Ferry. Around noon they joined up with South Carolina Governor John Mathews, who had come down the mainland through what is now North Charleston. Governor Mathews, Generals Greene and Moultrie, and their troops did not hurry southward to catch up with General Wayne, however. Instead, they held back and formed the second wave of the American forces to reoccupy Charleston.
As the governor and the American second wave made their rendezvous at Ashley Ferry, General Anthony Wayne was already leading his advance guard into Charleston. The firing of a cannon on the morning of the 14th was the signal for Wayne to begin a slow march down the broad path, now King Street Road, towards the town. Just before 11 a.m., they reached the outermost fortifications across Charleston neck, approximately where King Street crosses Columbus Street. According to the published memoirs of Major Alexander Garden, who was a member of Col. Lee’s Legion, the advancing American column saw a number of German Jägers about fifty yards in front of them, who had been guarding the entrance into town, but were now falling back ahead of the Americans. Major Garden tells us that a few of the American officers rode forward—not to fight the German mercenaries, but to engage in a bit of informal intelligence gathering. The Jägers explained that General Leslie had ordered the civilian inhabitants of Charleston to remain in their houses so as not to interfere with the British withdrawal, and to prevent non-combatants from getting injured in the event of a fire-fight.
The British remained suspicious of the Americans to the last, remembered Major Garden. The retreating navy had posted armed galleys in both the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, and these vessels rowed southward along the edges of the peninsula, keeping their watchful eyes fixed on the advancing American troops. Besides these small galleys, British men-of-war were arrayed along the length of the Cooper River waterfront, with cannon loaded and matches lit, ready to deliver a series of punishing broadsides into the town if the Americans offered the least provocation.
Fortunately, the evacuation took place without incident. In his published memoirs, General William Moultrie recalled that the cautious British withdrawal and American advance “was done with great order and regularity, except now and then the British called to General Wayne that he was too fast upon them, which occasioned him to halt a little.” Having agreed to follow slowly the retiring British troops into Charleston, remembered Moultrie, General Wayne kept a “respectful distance” of about two hundred yards until he reached the fortified town gates, just above the modern intersection of King and Calhoun Streets. Once the last of the British troops withdrew south of the town gates, they turned eastward onto Boundary Street (now Calhoun Street) and filed off toward Gadsden’s Wharf on the Cooper River waterfront.
Around 11 a.m. on December 14th, the 400 American troops under the command of General Anthony Wayne marched through the town gates into Charleston. It had been two years, seven months, and two days since British troops had captured the town, during which time many people had lost hope in the dream of American liberty. Marching down King Street, the weary soldiers found the town quiet and seemingly deserted. There were no fireworks, no rapturous crowds, no celebratory bands or streaming banners. Adhering to the last instructions from the British command, the town’s few remaining inhabitants stayed locked in their homes until the potential for danger had passed. The American column marched down King to Broad Street, turned east, and halted in front of the South Carolina State House at the corner of Meeting Street. From this post, General Wayne sent out small detachments to reconnoiter the town and assess the situation.
Meanwhile, farther up the neck of the Charleston peninsula, Governor John Mathews and his entourage were just making their rendezvous with General Greene and the main body of the American troops on the east side of Ashley Ferry. Once the whole body of the Americans were safely across the Ashley River, they began the long march of just over nine miles to the gates of Charleston. At this point, I’ll let General William Moultrie tell the rest of the story, from his published memoirs:
“At 3 o’clock, p.m. General Greene conducted Governor Mathews, and the [South Carolina Privy] council, with some other of the citizens into town: we marched in, in the following order: an advance [guard] of an officer and thirty of Lee’s dragoons [on horseback]; then followed the governor and General Greene; the next two were General Gist and myself [Moultrie]; after us followed the [privy] council, citizens, and officers, making altogether about fifty: one hundred and eighty cavalry brought up the rear: we halted in Broad-street, opposite where the South Carolina bank now stands [at the northwest corner of Broad and Church Streets]; there we alighted [from our horses], and the cavalry [were] discharged to quarters: afterwards, every one went where they pleased; some in viewing the town, others visiting their friends. It was a grand and pleasing sight, to see the enemy’s fleet (upwards of three hundred sail) laying at anchor from Fort Johnson to Five-fathom-hole, in a curve[d] line, as the current runs; and what made it more agreeable, they were ready to depart from the port. The great joy that was felt on this day, by the citizens and soldiers, was inexpressible: the widows, the orphans, the aged men and others, who, from their particular situations, were obliged to remain in Charlestown, many of whom had been cooped up in one room of their own elegant houses for upwards of two years, whilst the other parts [of the house] were occupied by the British officers, many of whom were a rude uncivil set of gentlemen; their situations, and [the] many mortifying circumstances [that] occurred to them in that time, must have been truly distressing. I cannot forget that happy day when we marched into Charlestown with the American troops; it was a proud day to me, and I felt myself much elated, at seeing the balconies, the doors, and windows crowded with the patriotic fair [that is, females], the aged citizens and others, congratulating us on our return home, saying ‘God bless you, gentlemen! You are welcome home, gentlemen!’ Both citizens and soldiers shed mutual tears of joy.”
“It was an ample reward for the triumphant soldier, after all the hazards and fatigues of war, which he had gone through, to be the instrument of releasing his friends and fellow citizens from captivity, and restoring to them their liberties and possessions of their city and country again.”
“This fourteenth day of December, 1782, ought never to be forgotten by the Carolinians; it ought to be a day of festivity with them, as it was the real day of their deliverance and independence.”
On Sunday, December 15th 1782, the elected government of South Carolina was re-established in the State House at the northwest corner of Meeting and Broad Streets. According to a letter from General Nathanael Greene to the Continental Congress, “the town opened for business” on Monday the 16th, and on Tuesday the 17th, the last vessels of the British fleet crossed the bar at the mouth of Charleston harbor and sailed away into the Atlantic.
According to statistics kept by British authorities at that time, the evacuation of Charleston in December 1782 included more than 5,000 armed troops (including British regulars, Hessian mercenaries, and members of various loyalist militia units), as well as 3,794 white men, women, and children, and 5,333 enslaved people of African descent. All told, approximately 14,000 people departed in this massive evacuation aboard approximately 130 vessels of the British navy. This was a remarkable undertaking, especially when we consider that in 1774, just prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution, the town of Charleston hosted a population of just over 12,000 people.
Life in Charleston, and the rest of South Carolina, very slowly returned to normal in the weeks and months after the British evacuation. The preliminary peace treaty signed in Paris in late November 1782 was formalized by more specific terms signed on January 20th and February 20th 1783. The American Congress in Philadelphia received this information on April 11th, and on 15 April 1783 they ratified the Treaty of Paris. This news reached Charleston on Sunday, April 20th, and the town exploded into a riot of jubilant celebrations on April 22nd and 23rd.
Since January of 1783, the South Carolina legislature had been planning to immediately repair and augment the fortifications around Charleston, just in case the British had any notions of re-capturing the town. After the news of a ratified peace treaty in April 1783, however, Governor Benjamin Guerard canceled all plans for new defensive works. Between 1784 and 1789, the accumulated fortifications of colonial and Revolutionary Charleston were demolished and built over.
At the end of 1783, to commemorate the British evacuation of the capital of South Carolina, the Charleston Battalion of Artillery adopted the 14th of December as their anniversary date. For about twenty years after the end of the American Revolution, the “Old Batts,” or the “Ancient Battalion,” as they became known, kept alive the memory of this momentous day with fireworks, parades, and feasts every December 14th. Around the time of the War of 1812, however, the holiday gradually disappeared from the calendar. Perhaps the memory of its significance faded as the veterans of the Revolution passed away. Perhaps Charleston’s collective attention became focused on the new war with Britain, which some began to call our “Second American Revolution.” Whatever the reason, the gradual decline of celebrations in honor of the 14th of December was an unfortunate lapse in our state’s collective memory.
Without interruption, we have continued to commemorate the 28 of June 1776, when South Carolina forces repulsed a British invasion, and the 4th of July 1776, when our representatives signed the Declaration of Independence. Those events represent significant dates in our War of Independence, of course, but neither represents the alpha nor the omega of our revolutionary struggle. Why is it that we don’t celebrate the end of the war, and the departure of the invading enemy forces? Why not call it our “Victory Day”?
Mark your calendars now, and I’ll leave you to contemplate this point with a reminder from the memoirs of General William Moultrie: “This fourteenth day of December, 1782, ought never to be forgotten by the Carolinians; it ought to be a day of festivity with them, as it was the real day of their deliverance and independence.”