John Rutledge had been prominent in South Carolina politics virtually since establishing his Charleston law practice in 1761. He served in the General Assembly, tousled with the governor over colonial governance, represented the colony in the Stamp Act Congress, then again in the First and Second Continental Congresses. A moderate, he was instrumental in drafting South Carolina’s wartime constitutions and often found himself as the state’s wartime chief executive, making him the commander in chief of South Carolina’s military forces. He had been involved in successfully repelling Britain’s 1776 attack on Charleston, basking in that early victory’s glow beside South Carolina Col. William Moultrie and Continental Maj. Gen. Charles Lee. In 1778 he resigned his post in a disagreement over the state’s proposed constitution. Scaling down his political engagement, Rutledge focused on his business interests, which had suffered.
Rutledge’s modest withdrawal from public life proved only temporary. In 1778 the British invaded Georgia. In January 1779 South Carolina’s governor resigned on the grounds that dealing with the military emergency was beyond his capability. The General Assembly then elected Rutledge to the position on February 5, 1779. Facing the British in Georgia, loyalist militia and Native Americans in the west, and the British Navy off the coasts, Rutledge appealed to the Continental Congress and nearby states for aid. Only Pulaski’s Legion was available. South Carolina’s leaders concluded they had been abandoned. Rutledge responded by calling up the militia and ordered mustering troops to gather at Orangeburg, where he joined them at the end of March. While the assembly proved disappointing, enough men gathered for Continental Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, commanding the Southern Department, to try and liberate upper Georgia by marching up the Savannah River in April.
After repelling Franco-American expeditions and largely conquering the state, the British began advancing into South Carolina under the command of Maj. Gen. Augustine Prevost. Unfortunately, Rutledge as commander-in-chief of South Carolina’s forces and Lincoln did not coordinate well. While both agreed on the importance of an offensive, they sent conflicting orders to forces in South Carolina. (When informed of this, Rutledge countermanded his own orders, deferring to Lincoln, but the failed meeting of minds undermined the coherence of American strategy.) Rutledge’s focus remained with General Lincoln and Augusta, Georgia. Brig, Gen, William Moultrie and Lt. Gov. Thomas Bee at Charleston were left to mobilize the state’s resources against Prevost.
Prevost swept Moultrie and his forces away and they finally retreated into Charleston on May 9. Rutledge hurried eastward with his troops from Orangeburg and arrived the next day, after declaring martial law and adopting a scorched earth policy before the advancing British. With the city’s militia and some troops dispatched by Lincoln, Moultrie and Rutledge had assembled some 2,400 troops in the city; Prevost was approaching with a like number, although American officials estimated that some 4,000 or more were coming. The tension was palpable. When Rutledge came across militia troops languishing about the unfinished defenses, he cursed and struck some, only to return and apologize the next day.
The overlapping chains of command between Continental and state troops that Rutledge had smoothed over with General Lee in 1776 and again with General Lincoln in 1779 reared their ugly heads. In the earlier cases, Rutledge had addressed them in practice by issuing his own orders to follow the orders of Continental officers without subordinating himself to the principle of unity of command. But on May 11, he or his aides sent state troops outside of Charleston’s lines to skirmish with British troops approaching the city without first consulting Moultrie. Count Pulaski ventured forward with some militia and skirmished with Prevost’s advance guard. The Americans lost, something Charleston’s inadequate defenders could ill afford. That night, another party forward of the primary line of defense was accidentally fired upon, killing Maj. Benjamin Huger and a handful of his men. Moultrie exploded:
This party was sent without the lines by the governor, as I was told, to stop a gap that was left open for a passage through the abbettis. This time the command was unsettled; the governor looking upon it as his right to command the militia; and I knew it to be my right to command the continental troops. The governor’s orders were carried about by some of his aids, in this manner . . .’you are to obey the orders of the governor; of Gen. Moultrie; and of the privy council,’ (8 of them).”
Moultrie countermanded the direction to obey orders from the privy council, but the word still spread up and down the lines of defenders. Moultrie was in the midst of this confusion when word of the latest fiasco reached him, at which point he insisted on unity of command. Rutledge, who had denied ordering the militia forward, and the privy council, promptly ceded authority to him, but the damage was already done. As was the case in 1776, when it was expedient Rutledge deferred authority in practice that he would not surrender in principle.
In the predawn hours of May 12, Rutledge summoned Moultrie for a meeting and asked whether the brigadier thought they should parley with the British then outside Charleston’s landward defenses. According to Moultrie, South Carolina’s civil authorities were under the impression that Prevost had seven to eight thousand men with him, whereas the city’s defenders numbered under two thousand. Fearing that British occupation would result in wanton murder and property damage, they sought terms from Prevost for surrendering the city. Prevost expected the city to surrender and promised to “do all in his power” to prevent the horrors of war and take necessary measures to prevent public disorder. Those who declined British authority would be treated as prisoners of war.
Rutledge and the privy council convened to discuss Prevost’s offer. Moultrie took a quick tally of his own forces and summarized the latest intelligence about the British, concluding that they only slightly outnumbered the Americans roughly 3,600 to 3,200. Then, he invited Col. John Laurens and Count Casimir Pulaski to join him and meet with the privy council at the governor’s home. Rutledge still did not accept Moultrie’s tally. The Adjutant General of the State still argued that Prevost had seven to eight-thousand men and Rutledge believed the Americans were closer to 1,800. Meanwhile, the state’s engineer argued that the lines opposing Prevost were indefensible. Although Moultrie, Laurens, and Pulaski wanted to fight, Rutledge and the council reached a different decision. Prevost’s offer was unacceptable, but by a vote of five to three South Carolina’s governing authorities made a stunning offer:
To propose a neutrality, during the war between Great-Britain and America, and the question, whether the state shall belong to Great-Britain, or remain one of the United States? To be determined by the treaty of peace between those two powers.
South Carolina would sit out the war. Moultrie had difficulty finding an officer willing to carry those terms to the British, who eventually declined them as a political question beyond Prevost’s military authority. Prevost would only discuss military matters. That put the matter back into Moultrie’s hands and he was determined to defend the town. Moultrie noted that two members of the privy council, Christopher Gadsden and Thomas Ferguson, had been opposed and later approached him offering to fight.
Rutledge’s position on the matter is unclear. Whether he opposed the offer and deferred to the council or fully embraced it is open to debate. As governor, he was not a voting member of the privy council, which would suggest he deferred to the council. (Even the lieutenant governor’s status as a member was tenuous under the 1778 constitution.) After all, he had taken the field himself when the British moved into Georgia. When informed of a similar British proposal for Georgia, Rutledge replied to Moultrie: “Lieut. Col. Provost’s proposition of a temporary neutrality, for a part of Georgia, is really too absurd, and ridiculous to require a moments consideration: Indeed it scarce merits an answer.”
The privy council was an advisory body only; decisions, particularly on matters of war and peace, were the purview of the governor as commander-in-chief. Thus, he was not constitutionally bound by the five to three vote. (Indeed, Article XXXIII of the 1778 state constitution precluded the governor from commencing a war or concluding a peace without the legislature’s consent.) But, likely sharing the feeling of abandonment, he accepted the advice well enough to allow the proposal to go forward to Prevost. Indeed, as the British moved off, the governor remained concerned about Charleston’s security, not pursuing them.
David Ramsay, a member of South Carolina’s General Assembly and one of the first historians to chronicle the state’s wartime experiences, argued that the entire episode was a ruse to buy time. The discussions did indeed take all of May 12 and Ramsay knew the participants. He was in a position to offer insight into their thinking. It would not be surprising to find Rutledge pursuing exactly that tactic, using the negotiations to put off Prevost, likely knowing that the British officer lacked the authority to accept such an offer, while also assuaging the concerns of a nervous privy council as General Lincoln’s army approached. On the other hand, Moultrie did not read developments that way and Laurens reportedly exclaimed, “Thank God, we are on our legs again” when Moultrie informed the governor and privy council that he intended to fight rather than surrender. In short, he and Laurens took the offer seriously enough. We can only speculate now.
The next morning, Charleston’s defenders woke to find Prevost and his army had decamped and were withdrawing back to Georgia. They had intercepted a letter from Lincoln to Moultrie saying he was on his way with the Continentals. Prevost had no interest in being sandwiched between two forces. Whether through political manipulation or blind luck, South Carolina remained in the war.
Henry Flanders, The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, Vol. I (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1874), 555; Edward McCrady, The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1775-1780, Vol. 1 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1901), 280-281.
Flanders, The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices, 1: 556; Henry Lumpkin, From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South (New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1981), 31; James Haw, John & Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1997), 125; McCrady, The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1: 351-352.
Flanders, The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices, 1: 559; William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, Vol. 1 (New York: David Longworth, Printer, 1802), 408-409. Moultrie arrived on the 7th, but his men trickled in. Haw, John & Edward Rutledge, 125. Rumors put Prevost’s numbers as high as 7,000.
Moultrie, Memoirs, 1: 433-434; McCrady,The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1:367. McCrady indicates that ten people from the governing council actually attended the meeting, counting Governor Rutledge and Lt. Gov. Thomas Bee, but not counting Moultrie and the other military officers.
Article IX, South Carolina Constitution of 1778, www.carolana.com/SC/Documents/sc_constitution_1778.html.
Flanders, The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices, 1: 563; George Vant Santvoord, Sketches of the Lives and Judicial Services of the Chief Justices (New York: Charles Scribner, 1854), 124. Vant Santvoord attributes the neutrality proposal to the officers of the garrison, i.e., Moultrie, rather than Rutledge and the privy council, but these seems unlikely.