Today we’re going to continue our short series about obscure events in Charleston in mid-April 1775 that represent the first sparks of the American Revolution in South Carolina. In last week’s cliffhanger, we were listening in on a committee meeting of the colony’s rebellious shadow government, when they were interrupted by the unexpected arrival of breaking news from Britain. Let’s return to that scene on Broad Street now, rewind our Time Machine, and pull up a chair at the beginning of that important meeting.
At five o’clock in the afternoon of Wednesday, April 19th, 1775, the small band of gentlemen forming of the Charleston General Committee of South Carolina’s new Provincial Congress convened their weekly meeting at Charles Ramadge’s tavern at the northeast corner of Broad and Church Streets. The principal item on their agenda was to discuss the latest London news of early February, which arrived in Charleston on April 14th in the Royal packet boat Swallow. King George and Parliament had just authorized the deployment of a massive military force to pressure rebellious Americans into obeying the will of British authority. Hopes for a peaceful resolution to the year-long political crisis were now rapidly evaporating in Charleston and elsewhere in the colonies. In this atmosphere of high anxiety, the leaders of South Carolina’s nascent shadow government must have longed for more information. The difficult decisions before them teetered on the balance of breaking news from London and Boston, which took many weeks to cross the Atlantic to Charleston.
Shortly after their meeting had commenced, however, the General Committee was interrupted by news that one of the king’s official mail-carrying ships had just arrived in port. The packet boat Le DeSpencer had sailed from Falmouth on March 13th and, after a very rapid passage of thirty-seven days, arrived in Charleston in the late afternoon of April 19th.[i] John Drayton, in his 1821 Memoirs of the American Revolution (which were based on the notes of his father, William Henry Drayton), tells us that the Charleston General Committee adjourned its meeting immediately after learning of the arrival of the packet boat, so that “the intelligence received by her [the packet], might be known, and digested.”[ii] That brief, simple statement of fact belies a host of assumptions, however, so let’s pause to unpack its meaning.
In the Atlantic world of the eighteenth century, it was customary for ship captains to carry newspapers from one port to the next, and to share them with the clientele at a tavern or coffee house of his choice. This practice transformed drinking establishments in port towns like Charleston into hubs of local conversations about broad matters of business and politics. In 1775, Ramadge’s tavern at the corner of Broad and Church Streets was the town’s most popular watering hole and the primary meeting place for liberty-minded Charlestonians. It is possible, therefore, that the arrival of William Pond, captain of the packet boat Le DeSpencer, at Ramadge’s tavern in the late afternoon of April 19th triggered the General Committee to adjourn their meeting. If the members of that committee sought to learn the latest news from London from the latest newspapers in the captain’s possession, they had only to walk downstairs to the tavern’s main barroom to find Captain Pond.
In Charleston on April 19th, 1775, the latest newspapers from London covered the latter half of February and a bit of early March. This material included details of a “Conciliatory Resolution” introduced by Prime Minister Frederick North on February 20th and adopted by British Parliament on February 27th. Although Lord North intended the resolution to diffuse American resentment over recent disciplinary actions adopted by Parliament, colonists from Boston to Savannah formed a very different interpretation. The “Conciliatory Resolution,” to angry Americans, was simply too little too late. It was a haughty, patronizing attempt to assuage American protests while still holding a rather large loaded gun to their collective colonial heads. To most Americans, including those in Charleston, it was difficult to reconcile Parliament’s true position. In early February, Parliament had ordered additional military forces across the Atlantic to intimidate American colonists, but two weeks later it offered a saccharine olive branch to soften the impending martial blow.[iii] At that moment, the patriotic men gathered at Ramadge’s tavern desperately wanted insight into the British government’s true intentions. If the answers they sought could not be found in the public newspapers, then perhaps they would have to look to the private government correspondence just delivered from the packet boat Le DeSpencer to the post office on East Bay Street. In other words, desperate times called for desperate measures.
After sundown on the evening of Wednesday, April 19th, three members of the Charleston General Committee convened on East Bay Street: William Henry Drayton (1742–1779), Thomas Corbett (1743–1814), and John Neufville (ca. 1727–1804). Their objective was simple. To satisfy their desperate desire for more information, these upstanding citizens were prepared to contravene the rule of law, to use force to intercept the British government’s private correspondence. Political tension with Britain had escalated to the point where illegal activity seemed justified. In the parlance of later warfare, they embarked on a covert mission to intercept enemy intelligence. Their target was South Carolina’s only post office, which occupied a small portion of the first floor of a three-story brick building that stood at the north corner of East Bay Street and Longitude Lane. Since the summer of 1768, the widow Mary Stevens had operated a Coffee House downstairs with accommodations for eight guests upstairs.[iv] Her young son, Jervis Henry Stevens (1750–1828, 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 twenty-five-year-old Henry Stevens did all the work in the post office.
After dark on the evening of April 19th, postal secretary Henry Stevens was inside the brick building, alone, “assorting the letters,” as he later remembered, that had just arrived in the packet boat Le DeSpencer from England. Stevens wrote his description of this event forty-five years later, but we don’t know precisely what words were exchanged on that night. I’ll wager it sounded something like this: There was a knock at the door. “The post office is closed,” Stevens announced. “Never mind that,” came a voice from the street. “We’ve come for the mail.” “Come back tomorrow,” replied Stevens. “Open the door,” demanded the voice, “or we’ll break it down by force.” Stevens again refused, and there was a moment of silence. Suddenly there was a clamor as someone outside began forcing open a window and making threats. Arms and legs appeared inside the window and Stevens panicked. Fearing an escalation of violence and “exposing the letters and papers of the office unnecessarily,” and the door in question being only “a slight one,” Stevens quickly acquiesced. As he later confessed, “I did open the door and admit those gentlemen.”
William Henry Drayton, Thomas Corbett, and John Neufville were now inside the post office, face to face with Henry Stevens. As Thomas Corbett later recalled, we “demanded the mail,” and Stevens “peremptorily [that is, haughtily] refused it.” Corbett said “we as peremptorily demanded it [again], declaring that we would take it by force if not delivered quickly, having authority for that purpose.” Henry Stevens replied, saying “we might do as we pleased, but that he should not deliver it.” We’ll never know if there were blows exchanged, or if there was any sort of a physical struggle. In his version of the event, Thomas Corbett simply stated “we then took possession of it [the mail].” For his part, Stevens recalled that the three intruders “selected all the publick [sic] documents, and took them away.” This small statement is important, because it confirms that the target of the post office raid was the correspondence from government (or “public”) officials in Britain to government (or “public”) officials in Charleston. Today we would call this material “private correspondence,” but in 1775 they called it “public correspondence” in the same way the British phrase “public school” refers to what Americans would call a private school.
After taking the mail by force, William Henry Drayton, Thomas Corbett, and John Neufville fled the post office and took their swag to a private location. Corbett later stated that they took the mail to the State House, to a meeting of the General Committee, but I’m convinced that his memory was skipping forward a day. Rather, I think it’s likely that the three men went directly to one of their houses, or perhaps to a back room at Ramadge’s tavern, and opened the stolen mail that night in private. Imagine yourself in their shoes for a moment: behind locked doors, nervously looking outside to see if Henry Stevens had alerted the town night watch of their crime; candles lighted, wax seals broken, and stiff papers unfolded. What did they find?
Among the “public documents” pilfered from the post office on the evening of April 19th were several letters from William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth (1731–1801), who served as Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies, addressed to each of the governors of the southern colonies. These letters included a copy of Parliament’s “Conciliatory Resolution” of February 27th, but they did not contain information that we might classify as secret. Nevertheless, it was Dartmouth’s condescending tone that apparently proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. In his letter to William Bull, lieutenant-governor of South Carolina, for example, Lord Dartmouth dispassionately stated that the British House of Commons had adopted the “Conciliatory Resolution” with a sizeable majority of votes. This fact gave ample evidence of the “supremacy of Parliament,” said Dartmouth, and should “convince them [the Americans] that there neither can nor will be any [of] the least relaxation from those measures which that [rebellious] conduct has made indispensably necessary for reducing the colonies to a state of due obedience to the constitutional authority of Parliament.” In other words, the British government had committed its military might to the objective of crushing American resistance. The time for appeals and negotiation had passed. This was a declaration of war.
The next day, Thursday, April 20th, the General Committee of South Carolina’s Provincial Congress convened at Ramadge’s tavern at four in the afternoon for their appointed weekly meeting. Their president, Colonel Charles Pinckney (1732–1782), called the meeting to order, and the secretary, Peter Timothy, read a summary of the latest news from Britain. The London newspapers brought yesterday in the Royal packet boat contained confusing, even contradictory evidence of the current mindset of British government. Warships filled with fresh troops were embarking for the colonies, but Parliament was offering a confusing “Conciliatory Resolution.” Peace was possible, but only if the American colonies dis-united and negotiated individually with the mother country. We have no minutes from this meeting, but we can imagine that opinions and interpretations were freely exchanged. At some point, however, one of the three mail thieves, most likely the eminent William Henry Drayton, held up a handful of letters written by the Earl of Dartmouth, and declared that the time for discussion had ended. The official letters from the Earl of Dartmouth, intended for the each of the governors of the southern colonies, had been intercepted in a covert operation, and their content revealed Britain’s true intentions.
Before his untimely death in 1779, William Henry Drayton began making notes about his participation in the early days of the American Revolution, as a sort of journal for a future history of the war. These notes, along with the Earl of Dartmouth’s letters stolen from the post office, passed to Drayton’s son, John Drayton (1766-1822), who used them to assemble his Memoirs of the American Revolution (1821). In that publication, Drayton recalled the meeting of the General Committee on April 20th, 1775, at which the gentlemen of Charleston discussed the latest news and letters from London, delivered the previous day by the packet boat Le DeSpencer. Britain’s contemptuous attitude towards the American situation was “now utterly irreconcilable with the interests, or the politics of the colony [of South Carolina].” “These things, were too obvious, not to be seen at first sight,” Drayton continued. “The General Committee therefore, did not enter into any public deliberation, as to these measures, or the conciliatory plan: choosing, to demonstrate their sentiments thereon, by acts, rather than by votes. And, without forming any resolution; it was understood in the General Committee, that the public military stores should be immediately seized into the hands of the people.”
Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the meaning of this statement. On the afternoon of Thursday, April 20th, 1775, the Whig patriots of Charleston, assembled in a committee representing the nucleus of South Carolina’s rebellious shadow government, collectively decided to commit a large-scale act of treason. To prevent the agents of British authority in South Carolina from using force to suppress American resistance, they resolved to effect a preemptive strike. After all, our acting governor, William Bull, had not received the Earl of Dartmouth’s intercepted letter, which confirmed the British government’s determination to use force to “reduce the colonies to a state of due obedience.” By stealing the government-owned muskets, cutlasses, ammunition, and gunpowder in the Charleston area, the rebellious leaders hoped to diffuse the threat of violence before local authorities had a chance to prepare. On the 20th of April, there was no need for debate or discussion. The time for action had arrived.
To set the wheels of revolution in motion, Colonel Charles Pinckney, president of the South Carolina Provincial Congress, “on the spot appointed a Secret Committee.” At its meeting in Charleston on January 16th, that Congress had authorized its president to create a secret committee, if circumstances warranted such an action, “to procure and distribute such articles, as the present insecure state of the interior parts of this colony renders necessary, for the better defense and security of the good people of these parts, and other necessary purposes.” Colonel Pinckney immediately nominated William Henry Drayton to lead the Secret Committee, and invited Drayton to choose his own crew. He first picked planters Arthur Middleton and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, then added William Gibbes and Edward Weyman, “the one having many schooners and stores which might be depended on upon occasion, and the other, being active in confidential services.” President Pinckney approved Drayton’s choices and instructed the Secret Committee to form a plan of action. “By this authority,” recalled John Drayton, “the Committee became possessed, of the most important powers; nothing more or less, than an unlimited power, in placing the colony in a posture of defense.”[v]
The story you’ve just heard encompasses a twenty-four-hour period that I believe is critically important to the history of South Carolina. Despite the significance of this story, however, it is not a fixed part of the traditional narrative of how this state rebelled against Great Britain. The mail-stealing episode of April 19th, 1775, is mentioned in some, but certainly not all, of the published histories of South Carolina’s revolutionary experience. Of the few history books that do mention the Charleston events of April 19th, you’ll find the facts garbled or presented quite a bit differently from my reconstruction of the scene. Why? Because two of the four participants in that event, namely Jervis Henry Stevens and Thomas Corbett, later wrote down their respective, flawed memories of that night at the post office. Both accounts contain some mistakes of chronology, and later historians—including John Drayton—either repeated their mis-remembered cues or chose to ignore the event altogether.
As a person who enjoys solving historical puzzles, I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing and contemplating what I like to call the historiographic conundrums surrounding the mail-stealing episode of April 19th, 1775. I realize that not everyone enjoys the minutiae of unpicking such knots, however, so I’m going to offer you an optional supplement. I’ve written a survey of the source documents used in constructing today’s story, with an explanation of how I arrived at my conclusions. If you’re interested in such details, I invite you to look below for a few paragraphs “bonus material.” If you’re not interested in that convoluted historiography, then let’s wrap up today’s story.
Within a twenty-four-hour period in April 1775, the sentiments of South Carolina’s political leaders evolved from a state anxious uncertainty to one of determined resolution. This important mental transformation was fueled by public news and private intelligence brought to Charleston by the Royal packet boat on April 19th and intercepted that evening by a small band of gentlemen rebels. Britain had revealed her true intentions to crush the Americans, and war was now inevitable. On the same day that Massachusetts militiamen exchanged fire with British troops at Lexington and Concord, William Henry Drayton, Thomas Corbett, and John Neufville saw the rising tide of war coming to Charleston. The intelligence they intercepted proved to be the spark that ignited the first step in armed resistance. On April 20th, South Carolina’s shadow government appointed a Secret Committee to launch a covert preemptive strike—to steal the British government’s arms and ammunition in Charleston.
Tune in next week, when we’ll follow the lightning strike of the Secret Committee on the 21st of April, 1775, as they steal hundreds of weapons and thousands of pounds of gunpowder under the cover of darkness. Will innocent by-standers alert the authorities? Will the Royal government launch a violent counterattack? This is good stuff, and it’s part of our history!
My efforts to reconstruct the mail-stealing episode that took place in Charleston on the evening of April 19th, 1775, began with a desire to make sense of several contradictory statements about this event that appear in documents written by first-hand participants in the revolutionary activities of that era. After studying the available resources (described below), I concluded that the discrepancies among the various accounts revolved around two issues: the precise timing of the arrival of a packet boat from Britain, and the identity of that vessel. After investigating the details of the packet boat service from Falmouth to Charleston, as described in my recent discussion of the postal system of colonial-era Charleston, I found the necessary data to resolve this historiographic conundrum.
Thomas Corbett penned two versions of his participation in the 1775 mail-wrestling experience: one written in January 1783 as part of a petition to the South Carolina General Assembly, and a second for William Moultrie’s Memoirs of the American Revolution (1802). Neither of Corbett’s accounts mentions the date of the event nor the name of the packet boat that carried the mail in question. Furthermore, Corbett states that he participated in the event as a member of the “Secret Committee,” a branch of the South Carolina Provincial Congress that did not exist until one day after the mail-stealing episode (more about this topic next week).[vi] In his 1802 Memoirs, Moultrie, a contemporary witness, reproduced Corbett’s description of the event and stated that it occurred “on the same day the battle of Lexington was fought;” that is, on April 19th, 1775.[vii] Moultrie’s chronological placement of this event is indeed accurate. Similarly, in his 1785 History of the Revolution of South Carolina, David Ramsay, another contemporary witness to these events, remembered that a British packet boat carrying devastating news arrived in Charleston on the “same day hostilities were commenced at Lexington,” that is, on April 19th, but he did not mention the name of the vessel or the mail-stealing episode at all.[viii]
Jervis Henry Steven’s account of the 1775 mail seizure was written in August 1820, at the request of John Drayton, who was then compiling his Memoirs. Forty-five years after the event, however, Stevens misremembered both the date and the name of the packet boat. He stated that the event took place “about the beginning of July 1775,” and involved “the mail which had just arrived from Falmouth in the Swallow packet, Captain William Copeland.”[ix] Stevens correctly recalled William Copeland as the captain of the packet boat Swallow, no doubt because Copeland had brought mail to Charleston on a quarterly schedule during the six years that the Stevens family hosted the post office in their coffee house on East Bay Street, 1769–75. Stevens was mistaken, however, in the name of the vessel that brought the mail that was confiscated. According to multiple notices in contemporary newspapers, The Swallow arrived in Charleston on April 14th, followed by the packet boat Le DeSpencer on April 19th. Stevens remembered correctly that a Royal packet boat had arrived in Charleston in early July 1775, but that vessel was the Earl of Sandwich, commanded by Edward Anson, which arrived on July 2nd.
William Henry Drayton personally retained physical evidence of the post office affair in the form of several stolen letters, which were transcribed and published in his son’s Memoirs of the American Revolution (1821). Unfortunately for us, the younger Drayton misrepresented the chronology of his father’s mail pilfering in his Memoirs. Following the flawed testimony provided directly to him by Jervis Henry Stevens in 1820, rather than observing the chronology provided by his father’s notes and documentary evidence, John Drayton described this mail-stealing episode as occurring in early July 1775.[x]
Considering all of this confusion about the date and the name of the packet boat, how can we know for certain that this 1775 mail-stealing episode occurred on April 19th? The answer, once again, is in the mail. Let’s take a close look at the cache of papers that William Henry Drayton took from the post office. He passed those papers to his son, John Drayton, who printed them as an appendix to his 1821 Memoirs of the American Revolution (vol. 1, pp. 338–46). A few years later, Robert Wilson Gibbes acquired Drayton’s Revolutionary War materials and again reproduced the text of the stolen letters in his 1855 Documentary History of the American Revolution, 1764–1776 (pp. 91–98). Dr. Gibbes conveyed his manuscript collection of Revolutionary War materials to the state of South Carolina, and they now form part of the collections of the Department of Archives and History (SCDAH). The excellent staff at the state archive has digitized Gibbes’s manuscript collection, and, thanks to the magic of the Internet, you can visit their website and view the letters William Henry Drayton confiscated from the post office in 1775 (via their Online Records Index).
Among the “Robert W. Gibbes Collection of Revolutionary War Manuscripts” at SCDAH, you’ll find five items dated “Whitehall, March 3rd, 1775,” written by the Earl of Dartmouth, William Legge, who was Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies at that time. These documents, created in early March 1775, were addressed to William Bull, lieutenant-governor of South Carolina at that time, in the absence of a Royal governor (Lord William Campbell, who arrived in July 1775), and to Governor James Wright of Georgia. Dartmouth’s letters discuss the ramifications of the “Conciliatory Resolution” adopted by British Parliament on February 27th. Considering the dates of this material, the letters in question could not have arrived in Charleston aboard the packet boat Swallow, which departed Falmouth on February 16th (before Lord North had even introduced the Conciliatory Resolution to Parliament) and arrived in Charleston on April 14th. Rather, Dartmouth’s letters, dated March 3rd, were carried by the packet boat Le DeSpencer, which departed Falmouth on March 13th and arrived in Charleston on April 19th. If Lord Dartmouth’s letters of early March 1775 had been pilfered from the Charleston post office four months later, in early July of that year, they would have been deemed old news, and thus of minimal interest. On April 19th, however, Dartmouth’s private letters to Lt. Gov. Bull concerning the Conciliatory Resolution represented incendiary news that set in motion a chain of events that marked South Carolina’s break from the British Empire.
As a student of the long, varied, and curious career of Jervis Henry Stevens, I must admit that I struggled to accept that his recollection of the mail-poaching event of 1775 was flawed. Surely there must be some kernel of truth in it, I thought to myself, because he seemed so sure that the event took place in early July. Having studied the facts for some time now, I’m pleased to report that Stevens’s memory was not entirely wrong. In fact, Stevens’s 1820 account points to an alternative solution: there was a second episode of mail-theft in Revolutionary Charleston.
As I mentioned earlier, the packet boat Earl of Sandwich arrived in Charleston on July 2nd, 1775, bringing the latest official news from Britain, having departed from Falmouth on the eleventh day of May.[xi] At the post office on East Bay Street that day, Capt. Edward Anson would have delivered the Royal mail bags to Jervis Henry Stevens and discussed with him the collection of local mail bags before his departure some days later. Since the Charleston post office was the official nexus of Royal mail for both Carolinas, Georgia, and East Florida, Stevens would have been receiving and collecting mail from our neighboring colonies to deliver to Capt. Anson to carry to Falmouth on his return voyage.
Circumstantial evidence suggests that William Henry Drayton and friends again raided the post office on July 2nd or 3rd 1775. On July 4th, William Henry Drayton penned a letter to South Carolina’s delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, sending them “a copy and extracts of letters which fell into the hands of the Secret Committee,” of which Drayton was the chair (more about the Secret Committee next week). Drayton immediately forwarded copies of these documents to Philadelphia because they were “thought to be of so great importance” that it was necessary to inform the congressional delegates. Drayton’s letter, dated July 4th, 1775, is reproduced in Drayton’s Memoirs (vol. 1, pp 354–55), Gibbes’s Documentary History (vol. 1, pp. 118–19), and is now found online via the SCDAH website. The letters “which fell into the hands of the Secret Committee” are likewise reproduced in Drayton’s Memoirs (vol. 1, pp. 346–50), Gibbes’s Documentary History (vol. 1, pp. 96–104), and are now found online via the SCDAH website. The six letters in question fall into two categories. The first two letters were written by the Earl of Dartmouth, both dated Whitehall, May 3rd, 1775, and were addressed to Governor James Wright of Georgia and Governor Josiah Martin of North Carolina. These materials appear to have been brought to Charleston by the packet boat Earl of Sandwich, which departed Falmouth on May 11th and arrived in Charleston on July 2nd. The remaining four letters, dated Savannah, June 27th, were written by Governor Wright of Georgia to British officers in Boston—General Thomas Gage and Admiral Samuel Graves. All of these materials were apparently intercepted and confiscated in early July at the post office in Charleston, where Jervis Henry Stevens, the post master’s secretary, was supposed to forward them to the proper recipients.
As you can see from the explanations above, it’s been a real challenge to decipher the real story of what happened at the post office in Charleston in April 19th, 1775. The facts are scattered across a mass of disparate sources, and eye-witness accounts of the event contain some factual errors. Considering these challenges, is it any wonder that this story currently plays such a miniscule role in the historical narrative of the Revolution in South Carolina? After all, if the details provided by eye-witnesses and contemporaries seem convoluted (which they are), even the best historians can be forgiven for concluding that the importance of the event in question must have been negligible. After a closer examination of the resources, however, and fortified with a better understanding of the packet boat schedules, I believe we now have a better picture of the events that sparked South Carolina’s break with Britain.
[i] South-Carolina and American General Gazette, 18–21 April 1775.
[ii] John Drayton, Memoirs of the American Revolution, volume 1 (Charleston, S.C.: A. E. Miller, 1821,), 218–19.
[iii] For a discussion of this meeting, see Drayton, Memoirs, 1: 220.
[iv] Mary Stevens was a sole trader who operated independently of her husband, John Stevens (died 1772). She first advertised accommodations and a coffee house at this location in South-Carolina and American General Gazette, 15–22 July 1768. The South-Carolina Gazette, 12 January 1769, informed readers that “the General Post Office is removed to Mr. Stevens’s Coffee-House on the Bay.”
[v] Drayton, Memoirs, 1: 220–21.
[vi] South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Petitions to the General Assembly, 1783, Nos. 179 and 329 (both from Thomas Corbett, dated 30 January 1783).
[vii] William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, volume 1 (New York: David Longworth, 1802), 59–60.
[viii] David Ramsay, History of the Revolution of South Carolina, volume 1 (Trenton, N.J.: Isaac Collins, 1785), 28.
[ix] Stevens’s letter describing the 1775 event is imperfectly transcribed in Drayton, Memoirs, vol. 1, 357–58. The original letter to John Drayton, dated 22 August 1820, survives in the Robert W. Gibbes Collection of Revolutionary War Manuscripts at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, box 4, folder 28.
[x] Drayton, Memoirs, 1: 309–11.