Wednesday, 21 July 2021

The Disease that Caused Slaves to Run Away: Drapetomania and other Delusions

In 1851, Dr. Samuel Cartwright of New Orleans claimed to have discovered mental or behavioral disorders "peculiar" to the enslaved black population. Cartwright, a strong advocate of slavery and a distinctive southern or "states rights" medicine, argued that blacks exhibited diseases and conditions that only a properly trained southern physician could detect and treat. 

He named one of these diseases "drapetomania" -- the disease that caused slaves to run away. the chief diagnostic sign of the disorder, "absconding from service," was familiar to planters and overseers. 

Unfortunately, many medical men, mostly from the North, had not paid enough attention to the peculiar diseases of blacks. They refused to see drapetomania for what it was: a type of insanity. Enslaved blacks suffering from drapetomania had become so mad that they tried to escape from a position God had designed them to fill and in which they were "normally" happy. 

Cartwright recommended a type of psychological treatment for drapetomania. To prevent or cure it, it was essential to elicit "awe and reverence" from the enslaved toward white men, their natural superiors. 

Masters and overseers had to make them understand that their intended lot, decreed in the Bible, was submission. They should treat the slaves graciously, supply their physical needs, and protect them from abuse. But they should never treat a slave as an equal or allow him to be anything but a "submissive knee bender." [Below: Cartwright and a submissive knee bender.]

Slaves who exhibited restlessness in their position, who became "sulky and dissatisfied," Cartwright warned, were showing signs of developing drapetomania. The causes of dissatisfaction should be investigated and removed. If no cause could be detected, the best remedy was the traditional one of "whipping them out of it." I suspect many masters and overseers did not need this advice.  [Below: Abolitionist Image]

Cartwright "discovered" another type of mental illness peculiar to blacks. He called it "Dyaethesia Aethiopica, or Hebetude of Mind and Obtuse Sensibility of Body." Overseers, he said, knew it as "Rascality." I'll call it "DA" for short.

DA, Cartwright claimed, was more common among free blacks than slaves. Among slaves it was restricted to those whose masters allowed them too much liberty. Black freedom was the cause of the disorder and curtailing it was the cure. 

The signs of DA included mental lethargy and a partial loss of sensibility in the skin. The sufferers tended to do a lot of mischief that seemed intentional but was due mainly "to the stupidity of mind and insensibility of the nerves induced by the disease." 

Victims were liable "to break, waste and destroy everything they handle." They "tear, burn, and rend their own clothing, and paying no attention to the rights of property, steal others, to replace what they have destroyed. They slight their work.... They raise disturbances with their overseers and fellow servants without cause or motive, and seem to be insensible to pain when subjected to punishment."

Cartwright conceded that northern physicians had observed the signs and symptoms of DA but had incorrectly attributed them to slavery. They ignored their greater prevalence among blacks who had been free for generations. DA was "the natural offspring of negro liberty -- the liberty to be idle, wallow in filth, and to indulge in improper food and drinks."

DA could also be easily cured "if treated on sound psychological principles." The main requirement was to stimulate the skin, which was "dry, thick. and harsh to the touch," and the liver, which was inactive. The "patient" should be scrubbed with warm water and soap, then covered in oil, which should be slapped in with "a broad leather strap." Slapped here looks like euphemism for "whipped."

Next,  the "patient" should be required to do some hard work in the fresh air and sunshine, to force him to expand his lungs. After resting from labor, he should be fed "some good wholesome food, well-seasoned with spices and mixed with vegetables." After more work, rest, and lots of liquids, he should be washed and sent to a clean bed in a warm room. Repeating this treatment each day would quickly bring about a cure "in all cases that are not complicated by chronic visceral derangement."   

Cartwright's descriptions shared the views of contemporary asylum doctors that many antisocial behaviors were the result of mental illness. As such, they should be treated, not punished. For Cartwright, whipping was not punishment but a necessary means of restoring the proper order of things and thus good for the slave as well as the master. It was in fact, "humane." 

Similarly, Cartwright's therapies for DA did not differ in some respects from those experienced by patients in contemporary lunatic asylums. They also emphasized work in the fresh air, good diet, bathing, and rest. (Note: asylum doctors no longer considered whipping to be therapeutic or acceptable by the 19th century). 

The difference is that Cartwright's descriptions and prescriptions were embedded in a world view that accepted slavery as a natural, God-given institution, however "peculiar." They were part of what historians have called The Proslavery Argument and what today is often called "scientific racism." In short, they were a delusional, perverse reaction to a natural human desire.

Sources: Samuel Cartwright, "Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race," De Bow's Review 11 (1851) 331-36, 643-52.

Peter McCandless, Moonlight, Magnolias, and Madness: Insanity in South Carolina from the Colonial Period to the Progressive Era (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

England is a Foreign Country

Everyone knows that the pro-Brexit vote was fueled in part by a desire to "get back control" of Britain's borders. "Border control!" is of course a euphemism for "there's too many damn foreigners here!"


The desire for Brexit was and is mainly an English one. 
Wales voted Leave but by a slim margin. Northern Ireland voted Remain, but also by a slim margin. 

A large majority of Scots (61 per cent) voted Remain. Many of them wanted to keep an open border with the EU. Scotland has been bleeding people for centuries. Most Scots want immigrants to come. 

Because England is much more populous than the so-called "Celtic Fringe" of the UK, its pro-Brexit majority dragged the others out of the EU. Now the UK (i.e. English Tory) government can "control the borders" -- except perhaps in Northern Ireland. They can put up the "No Entry" sign for undesirable foreigners. 

That would seem a victory except for one problem: England has  always been full of foreigners. Nearly everybody on the island of Britain is descended from people "from off" as they like to say in the American South. 

Leaving aside the prehistoric migrations of pre-Celtic and Celtic peoples, the first recorded foreign invasion is that of the Romans. Under Claudius, they arrived to stay in AD 43, having surveyed the place a century before. [Image: Emperor Claudius]

The Roman Army pulled out shortly after 400, as their empire crumbled in the face of Germanic incursions. Some of the Germans opted to go to Britannia, as the Romans called England and Lowland Scotland.  

The Germans came in large numbers in the 5th and 6th centuries and pushed the Romanized Britons to the west and northwest. Moderns usually call the Germanic invaders Anglo-Saxons, but there were other Germanic "tribes" in the mix. The name "England" derives from the Angles (Angle-Land). [Image: Sutton Hoo Helmet, Reconstructed]

In the modern era, England has often been referred to as an "Anglo-Saxon country" but this is a gross oversimplification. Besides the Britons who were already here, new migrants/invaders soon appeared: the Vikings. [Image: Vikings. From Minnesota, sorry, but the best image of Vikings I found]

The Scandy hordes first came to England in 793 with a raid on Lindisfarne Monastery in Northumberland. In the following century raids gave way to settlement and conquest. 

The Vikings who came to the British Isles hailed from Denmark and Norway. The Norwegians focused mainly on Scotland and Ireland. The Danes concentrated on England. Before they were stopped by Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, they had gained control of the eastern half of the country: what became known as the Danelaw. 

Alfred's successors gradually reconquered the Danelaw and created an English kingdom roughly as it is today by the late 10th century. But the Danes were not through. In 1013, Danish King Sweyn conquered England. He died soon after, but his successors ruled it as part of a Danish Empire until 1042, when a half-English, half-Norman king, Edward the Confessor, ascended the throne. 

Edward had no children and his death in 1066 ended the line of Alfred the Great. A disputed succession produced several claimants to the throne. The ultimate winner was another foreigner, William of Normandy, better known as the Conqueror. [image: A near likeness of William the Conqueror from the Bayeux Tapestry]

Normandy got its name from Vikings -- "Northmen" -- who took over that part of what is now France in the 10th century. The Norman invasion army of 1066 also included French knights William bribed with promises of English land. 

For the next two centuries and more England was ruled by a Norman-French aristocracy which gave us the term "robber barons." By the 14th century, however, the foreign elite began to merge with the locals culturally and linguistically. The England of today began to take visible shape, heralded by Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and the Hundred Years War with France. 

During the Middle Ages one group of "foreigners" was deported from England. In 1290, Edward I (Longshanks) formally expelled the Jews. That edict was not overturned until 1656, by Oliver Cromwell, who was tolerant of most folks except the Irish. Jews began to return -- at first in small numbers -- then in much greater numbers in the late 19th and 20th centuries. At that time, they were fleeing pogroms in Tsarist Russia and a general rise in anti-Semitism in Continental Europe.

The mongrelisation of England continued during the Middle Ages and beyond. England was part of a trading world that included merchants and artisans from Italy, France, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and the Hanseatic League. Many people from those places settled in England and made it their home.

When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, renewed persecution of the Protestants (Huguenots) population led many of them to emigrate. Large numbers of merchants and artisans fled to England. Among them were the famous Spitalfields silk weavers. London. 

The Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 brought another influx of foreigners, the Dutch who came in the train of William of Orange (William III). Daniel Defoe pilloried xenophobic attacks on the new arrivals in his brilliant poem, "The True Born Englishman." [Image: William III, of Orange]

Scots poured into England after the Act of Union (1707) established the Kingdom of Great Britain. They also aroused resentment, and were often portrayed in popular journals and images as impoverished, barbaric, and avaricious. (See "A Vile Country": Dr Johnson on Scotland and Scots

The Irish and Welsh also came in large numbers from the 18th century on. Irish navvies virtually built the canal and rail network of Britain, doing backbreaking, dangerous work that would be done by heavy machinery today. 

Many Italians came from the late 19th century bringing good food and ice cream. In the 20th century people from all over the far-flung British Empire began to arrive, first a trickle, then a flood. Africans, Asians, West Indians, Eastern Europeans. 

England is truly a nation of foreigners. That is part of its strength and greatness. Many different peoples, from Roman times on, have merged to create the England of today. If, like the USA, it hasn't always been welcoming to new arrivals, it has always accepted them in time. And for the most part, they have accepted if not glorified English culture, institutions, and customs. 

In 1953, the English writer L. P. Hartley published The Go Between. He opened the novel with the now famous line "the past is a foreign country." As a historian, I completely agree with that statement. I hope you will agree with me that England, too, is a foreign country. I mean that as a compliment.



Thursday, 8 July 2021

The NHS: Britain's Greatest Asset


It seems almost banal to write that the National Health Service of the UK is a national treasure. But that's what it is. I have written as much before, several years ago. (See The NHS: The Best Present Britain Ever Gave Itself). 

Since then, the country has battled and continues to battle a once in century-- we hope -- pandemic. Its response to Covid-19 in all its variants has demonstrated the tremendous asset the NHS represents to the people of the four nations. 

Yes, there have been mistakes. Some mistakes are inevitable in such an unprecedented situation. In any case, the worst "mistakes" -- I'm being kind here -- have been those committed by high ranking government officials. What shines through this dark period is the everyday dedication and outright heroism of NHS staff at all levels.

I and my family have benefited personally from their work on numerous occasions. My wife has survived two life threatening conditions thanks to prompt and effective treatment. She continues to heap accolades on those who cared for her.

A few weeks ago I had a heart attack while playing tennis. A friend kindly drove me to the local hospital. I was taken in immediately, and given an ECG and other checks within minutes. 

Within half an hour I was in an ambulance on my way to another hospital not far away that has a top cardiac unit. The ambulance crew were on top of their job and good fun to boot. About 20 minutes after arrival I was wheeled into the operating room to receive a stent. It wasn't a fun hour, but the results were marvelous.

Three days later I was discharged, feeling fit as a fiddle, but told to "take it easy" for a while. No tennis for a few weeks at least. I also brought home a big bag of meds, which I'm told will help fend off a repeat performance. Cardiac rehab coming up.

I have nothing but the highest praise for the care and treatment the doctors, nurses, and other staff provided me. I'm especially impressed because they have been under so much pressure and overworked during the past year and a half due to the pandemic. 

In return for all that effort the Tory government has offered NHS staff a one per cent raise, well below inflation. Staff are now demanding a 15% raise. They deserve it. We should support them in any way we can. 

For my American readers: the total cost to me was £0.00. I won't be having another heart attack when the bills arrive. 

Monday, 7 June 2021

Gretna Green: Scotland's Las Vegas

Just across the Scottish border with England lies the village of Gretna Green (hereafter, GG). Despite its small size, it is notable for several reasons. 

The worst railway crash in British history occurred near the village in 1915, worse than the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879. The Quintinshill Rail Disaster, involving several trains, led to the deaths of more than 220 people. More than 200 of them were Scottish soldiers on their way to Gallipoli, in Ottoman Turkey.

In the same year, the environs of Gretna Green became the site of the largest cordite factory built in the UK during World War I. The Ministry of Munitions had it built in response to the "Shell Crisis" of 1915. The British Army, fighting the Germans in France and Belgium, was running out of artillery shells. 

By the time the Gretna munitions complex was complete, it extended twelve miles along the border and employed more than 16,000 people, more than half of them women. At its peak it produced more cordite than all the other munitions factories in the UK combined.

But GG is best known today for another industry -- the wedding business. For more than a century it had a mixed reputation as a place where where young English folk could get married quickly, without a fuss -- for a fee of course. 

The making of GG's marriage industry (and the village itself) was Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1754. The act was designed to prevent persons under 21 from marrying without their parents' consent. The persons in questions were mainly young girls from wealthy families.

The Marriage Act, however, applied only to England and Wales. In Scotland, which retained its own legal system after the Act of Union in 1707, the law continued to allow persons under 21 to marry without parental permission, from age 14 for males and 12 for females. 

Scottish law also allowed for "irregular marriages." If the declaration of marriage was made before two witnesses, almost anybody could officiate at the wedding. One did not need to be a licensed clergyman. 

Some canny Scots soon realized the opportunity these differences presented. And Young English folk desperate to marry as quickly as possible soon learned that their salvation lay on the high road to Scotland. (Image: Carriage Arriving at Gretna Green, c. 1800)

Situated directly across the border from England, here a small river, GG was providentially placed to profit from the new marriage business. In the 1770s, the construction of a new toll road that passed by the village made it the most easily reachable in Scotland. 

Marriages in GG were often performed by local blacksmiths, who became known as "anvil priests." One of them presided at more than 5,000 weddings.  

GG's role as a magnet for runaway couples is mentioned in many works of literature and in films. In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, George Wickham convinces Lydia Bennet to elope with a promise of taking her to GG to marry. Instead he takes her to London where Mr. Darcy finds her and returns her to her family.   

Changes in the law on both sides of the border eventually ended the  quickie marriage industry, though not the wedding business itself. In 1856, a new law in Scotland required a minimum of 21 days residence in the country before being married. That restriction was abolished in 1977. 

In 1929, another act raised the age of legal marriage in Scotland to 16 for both men and women. The parties can still marry without parental consent. In England and Wales, they can now marry at 16 with parental consent, and at 18 without it. 

GG was not the only Scottish border town where quickie marriages for English customers were performed, but it was unquestionably the most famous. Today that kind of fame is largely confined to Las Vegas, Nevada where anything goes and allegedly stays. Vegas also offers quickie divorces. 

Because of its history GG remains a popular place for weddings, with several venues and hotels available. Services are always performed over the town's marriage icon, a blacksmith's anvil. One ad urges you to stay, marry, and dine for £545, a smashing wee bargain for the matrimonially inclined. You take the high road and I'll take the low road.

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Naming and Shaming: Nicknames for Police, From Peelers to Pigs

Police have been in the news much of late, mostly for negative reasons: racism, corruption, and brutality to name three. In other words, they are much like the rest of humanity, armed with truncheons, tasers, tear gas, and guns.

Of all the professions on earth, perhaps none has generated more nicknames than the police. Prostitutes and lawyers are probably close behind. I make no claim for scientific accuracy in this post. The origins of these police nicknames is often obscure at best. 

Some police nicknames are, however, closely connected with their history. In the UK, for example, two of them came from the name of the man who established the London Metropolitan Police in 1829, Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel. [Image: Peel]

The nickname "Bobbies" comes from Peel's first name. Anyone the least familiar with British culture is likely to know that. Fewer know that at first, "Peeler" was the more common name. "Peeler" eventually went out of fashion, but "Bobby" is still in common use.

[Image: Sydenham Police, London, c. 1860]

Most nicknames for police come from street or criminal slang. "Bobby" and "Peeler" sound pretty neutral or even positive now, but probably were not at first. Many people viewed the creation of the Metropolitan Police with suspicion, as a threat to individual freedom. 

The term "police" conjured up images of Continental despotism -- the France of Louis XIV and Napoleon or Tsarist Russia. Police were looked on as little better than government spies and enforcers propping up the ruling elite. 

A more common and international nickname for police is "cop" or "copper." According to the Oxford English Dictionary these words have an old pedigree, going back to at least the early 18th century, 1704. They derived from the French caper, meaning "to capture." 

Because England had no professional police at that time, the term may have referred to a "thief taker." These were essentially like the later bounty hunters who captured criminals for rewards. 

So says the OED. Other explanations of "cop" and "copper" exist. One was that "copper" came from the copper buttons on the uniforms of Peel's new police force. Another, familiar to me since childhood, was that "cop" was an acronym for "Constable on Patrol."

Since medieval times towns and parishes were required to appoint constables responsible for enforcing the law and catching criminals. But these constables were elected, ordinary citizens who had no training and often tried to get out of doing an unpleasant and often time consuming job. Better to leave it to the thief takers, who were themselves often criminals. 

The most famous thief taker of the early 18th century was Jonathan Wild, who styled himself as "Thief Taker General." He turned some of his own gang members in for rewards and eventually got his own, being hanged at Tyburn in 1725. [Image: Wild]

Wild provided the inspiration for Peachum in John Gay's Beggar's Opera (1728) and later the subject of a Henry Fielding novel (1743). 

Whatever the true origins of "cop" and "copper," the names have proved enduring. Other nicknames for police are more recent, including "fuzz" and "pigs." 

"The Fuzz," which has been used much since the 1960s, is of unknown origin. One view is that it is a corruption of "the force. "  Another is that it is a reference to static on police radios or the short haircuts of police. The name was famously used in the 2007 comedy, "Hot Fuzz." 

"Pigs" first came into use in the 19th century. It declined in usage afterwards, but became common again in the 1960s and 1970s. In the latter period, "pigs" was widely employed by people in the counter culture and anti-Vietnam War protestors. It remains widely used in the English-speaking world and beyond.

In 1971, "pig" became the focus of a short-lived controversy in an English town (I forget which). A new police station was being built on a street called Pig Lane. The local police wanted to change the name. Local residents protested, arguing that it had been Pig Lane since the 18th century. I don't recall who won. I suspect the residents. Tradition and ALL THAT.


Monday, 17 May 2021

Boston King: Black Loyalist, Minister, African Colonial Leader

When the British attacked Charleston (Charlestown), South Carolina in the spring of 1780, thousands of enslaved Africans fled to the British lines as Loyalists. General Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander, offered them freedom as an incentive to leave rebel masters. Among those who took up the offer was a young man named Boston King. (Image: Charleston, c. 1770)

King was born enslaved on a plantation near Charleston owned by Richard Waring, around 1760. His father, who was literate, had been born in Africa but "stolen away into slavery when he was young." King relates that Waring had been on good terms with his father and his mother, a skilled herbalist, and treated them well. Boston's experience was less fortunate.   

As a boy he trained as a house servant. When he was sixteen, Waring apprenticed him to a carpenter in a nearby settlement. His new master often beat him "without mercy. When the opportunity came, King joined the exodus of the enslaved fleeing to the British lines at Charleston. "I began to feel the happiness, of liberty, of which I knew nothing before " he later wrote. The British welcomed him, but did not always treat him well. (Image: Siege of Charleston, 1780, a somewhat fanciful depiction from 1862)

At the time, smallpox had broken out in and was spreading across South Carolina. The black runaways were highly vulnerable to this deadly, agonizing disease. Few of them had survived smallpox or had been inoculated, the two means of achieving immunity. It spread among them with terrifying rapidity, and King became infected.

British authorities removed the infected blacks about a mile away from their camp to prevent their soldiers from being infected. There, most of them lay in the open without adequate food or care. 

King wrote later that he owed his survival to the kindness of a British soldier who had nursed and fed him. He was later able to do the same for his benefactor, when he was wounded in battle. Soon after, he narrowly avoided being sold into slavery by a white Loyalist officer. Captain Lewes was stealing horses from the British army and was about to switch to the rebel side. King escaped from him and alerted his British superior to Lewes' plan.

King went on to serve the British army in Carolina by carrying dispatches through enemy lines. One message he carried while stationed at Nelson's Ferry (Near Eutawville) helped save 250 soldiers from being captured by the Americans. 

He later joined the crew of a British man of war and took part in the capture of a rebel ship in Chesapeake Bay. His ship went to New York City with its prize. King decided to stay and worked at various jobs, including as a crewman on a pilot boat. The boat was captured by an American ship and King was nearly forced back into slavery.  But he escaped once again and returned to New York. 

By that time, the war was coming to a close. Thousands of  black Loyalists had converged on New York City, the last British stronghold in the former thirteen colonies. In New York, King married Violet, an enslaved woman from North Carolina who had also joined the British. But once again the threat of re-enslavement threatened him. 

Article 7 of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War in 1783 stipulated (at the insistence of Henry Laurens of South Carolina) that the British return all American property to its owners, including runaway slaves. The news filled King and his acquaintances with "inexpressible anguish and terror." 

Fortunately, the British Commander in New York, Sir Guy Carleton refused to implement Article 7. He argued that the black Loyalists were no longer property but free persons. Returning them to slavery would violate Clinton's promise. Prior to the British evacuation of New York, Carleton sent them to the British territory of Nova Scotia, where many white Loyalists also took refuge. In all, the British issued certificates of freedom to more than 5000 black Loyalists. 

Boston and Violet embarked for Nova Scotia in July 1783. There they helped to establish a black Loyalist settlement called Birchtown. (King calls it Burch Town in his memoir). The settlement was named for General Samuel Birch, the British commandant in New York City who had issued certificates of freedom and overseen the evacuation of the black Loyalists. In Birchtown, King worked as a carpenter and various other jobs to support himself. (Image: Halifax, Nova Scotia, 18th century)

Methodist missionaries arrived in the area the following year. The Kings were among the first to be converted. Boston became a circuit riding preacher. Life was initially extremely hard, as in all new pioneering settlements The difficulties were increased by poor soil and a harsh climate. Tensions with white neighbors were often high as both communities competed for scarce resources and jobs. 

After a few years conditions began to improve, but in 1792 the Kings accepted an offer from the new Sierra Leone Company to emigrate to a new British colony in West Africa. They helped to recruit hundreds of other black Loyalists in Nova Scotia to join them.

The Company's backers were antislavery leaders in Britain, including Granville Sharp, William Wilberforce, and brothers Thomas and John Clarkson. They established the colony as a refuge for freed slaves, most of them Loyalists living in Canada and Britain. They called it the Province of Freedom. It was later renamed for the nearby Sierra Leone Mountains.  

John Clarkson led about 1100 Nova Scotia settlers, including the Kings, to the new colony. Together, they established the settlement of Freetown, now Sierra Leone's capital. Tragically, Violet died soon after their arrival, probably of yellow fever or malaria. Many other new arrivals, both white and black, also died. Few had immunities to the local fevers. [Images of Freetown, mid-19th century]

The Sierra Leone Company employed King to preach to the indigenous people. He was the first Methodist preacher to do so. That task proved immensely difficult, because he did not understand their language. He proposed to open a school. In 1794, the Company sent King to London to study at a Methodist institution, Kingswood School, near Bristol. 

At Kingswood, King trained as a missionary and teacher, returning to Sierra Leone in 1796. While at Kingswood, he wrote his autobiography, which the Methodist Magazine published in 1798. It is one of few accounts written by a black Loyalist or any Loyalist for that matter.

Meanwhile, King had remarried. He and his second wife Peggy relocated about 100 miles inland to missionize among the Sherbo people. The couple died there in 1802, probably of a fever.

Further Reading: 

Boston King, "Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, A Black Preacher," Methodist Magazine, 21, 1798. King's memoir is republished in The Life of Boston King, Black Loyalist, Minister, and Master Carpenter, ed. by Ruth Holmes Whitehead and Carmelita A.M. Robertson, Nimbus Publishing Limited & The Nova Scotia Museum, 2003. 

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

The British Seize Charleston, May, 1780

[A somewhat fanciful depiction of The Siege of Charleston from the British lines by Alonzo Chappell, 1862.] 

On May 12, 1780, Charleston, South Carolina surrendered to a British army under the command of Sir Henry Clinton. It was the worst Patriot defeat in the American War for Independence. Clinton not only took the city, the most important in the South, he also captured most of the garrison, more than 5000 soldiers. It was not until the Surrender at Bataan in World War II that more American soldiers surrendered to an enemy army. [Image: Sir Henry Clinton]

The victory was the culmination of a campaign that had begun three months before, when Clinton had disembarked an army of more than 8000 men on Simmons (now Seabrook) Island. Marching through the difficult terrain of Simmons and James Islands, they crossed the Ashley River onto Charleston Peninsula on March 29. 

They immediately began to construct siege lines that moved them and their artillery ever closer to the city. The map below shows the gradual encroachment of the British lines. 

Thousands more British and Loyalist soldiers from Savannah and New York soon joined Clinton, as did thousands of black runaways attracted by his promise of freedom. Many of them were enlisted as Black Pioneers, auxiliaries to the British Army. 

The American commander, Benjamín Lincoln of Massachusetts, had advocated Colonel John Laurens' idea of arming enslaved men on the same promise. The state legislature voted the proposal down by a large majority. Some local leaders argued that allowing the British a free passage through South Carolina was preferable to the prospect of arming Africans.

By late April the British had completely surrounded Charleston. Lincoln proposed to escape with his army before the British had encircled the city. He backed down in the face of local hostility to the move. [Image: Benjamin Lincoln]

Acting Governor Christopher Gadsden (of "Don't Tread On Me" flag fame) led an angry crowd to Lincoln's headquarters. Gadsden accused Lincoln of cowardice. One of his entourage threatened to open the gates to the enemy and attack Lincoln's soldiers before they could get to their boats. [Images: Christopher Gadsden and his flag]

Most of Lincoln's officers also opposed a withdrawal at this point. Lincoln agreed to remain. In the end, cut off from escape and reinforcements, running out of food, and under increasingly heavy bombardment, he accepted Clinton's terms. Ironically, Gadsden and others who had accused Lincoln of cowardice earlier now demanded he surrender to save the city from destruction. 

Under Clinton's terms, the Continental soldiers became prisoners of war. They were interned in and around the city. The militia were paroled. They could go home, as long as they did not take up arms against the British. Lincoln, Laurens, and other officers were also paroled not long after. They were able to return to active service after being exchanged for British prisoners of equivalent rank. 

A few weeks later, Clinton returned to his headquarters in New York. He left General Lord Cornwallis in command in the South. The two men despised each other, a fact that would cause serious problems for British operations for the rest of the war. [Image: General Charles, Lord Cornwallis]

Before leaving, Clinton made a serious mistake. He decreed that men who had taken parole had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown. In effect, they might have to fight for the British against their former comrades. 

Anger at Clinton's proclamation helped fill the ranks of the partisan forces that soon emerged in the backcountry under Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter. Cornwallis won a decisive victory over General Gates at Camden in August, but his inability to subdue the partisans (and Carolina fevers) led him to march his army to Virginia and Yorktown.  

Footnote: On the same day Charleston surrendered to Clinton, an enormous tragedy occurred. As the Patriots were surrendering their weapons at the powder magazine (on Magazine Street), the powder exploded, killing scores and injuring hundreds. The dead and wounded included soldiers from both sides, women from a nearby brothel, and most of the "lunatics" at the adjacent poorhouse and hospital. Each side blamed the other, but the explosion was most likely caused when a soldier threw down a musket that had not been unloaded and discharged into the magazine.

Further Reading: 

Carl P. Borick, A Gallant Defense: The Siege of Charleston, 1780. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.