The Battle of Beaufort

William Moultrie by Charles Willson Peale, 1782. (National Portrait Gallery)

South Carolina, by several measures, was the most affluent and economically important pre-revolutionary British colony in North America. Largely agrarian and sparsely settled, it contained plantations that used slave labor to grow the valuable cash crops of indigo and rice for European, Caribbean, and American markets.

Indigo, used to make blue dye, was one of its most valuable commodities, accounting for about one-third of the total value of the colony’s cash exports before the Revolutionary War. The coastal climate provided for a long growing season, and the landscape was suitable for growing rice. These two crops led to a booming economy beneficial to plantation owners. South Carolina also produced pitch and tar (naval stores), turpentine, furs, corn, beef, pork, soap, candles, pine lumber for masts and hoops, hard wood for ship frames, hemp, and flax.

British merchants valued trading with the colony as much as the colonists benefited. The merchandise the southerners took in trade from Great Britain furnished them with clothing, woolen goods, linen, ironware, brass, pewter, and other miscellaneous household goods. South Carolina was dependent upon Great Britain to supply these necessary wares that brought nearly £25,000 per annum back to the homeland.

Coastal South Carolina’s proximity to the Gulf Stream was ideal for shipping goods and commodities to the Northern colonies, northern and Mediterranean European markets, and the Caribbean. South Carolinians, however, owned few ships of any consequence compared to those they traded with. The chief method of transport was by shallow-draft boatssinceroads were difficult to maintain inthe low country’s swampy land. Consequently, access to deep-water ports was an economic necessity. Charleston was the major colonial seaport, but Beaufort, above Port Royal Sound, was the seconddeepest natural harbor on the east coast. At the time, Beaufort was the second largest city in South Carolina. Removing it from rebel control was a strategic military objective for the British when they embarked on their strategy of southern subjugation.

On December 29, 1778, the British North American command sent two expeditionary forces, one from New York City and another from East Florida’s Saint Augustine, to capture Savannah, Georgia.[1] In mid January 1779, Brig. Gen. Augustine Prévost dispatched Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell with about 1,000 men to Augusta, Georgia. The British believed Loyalist sentiment was strong there, and Prévost hoped to recruit a loyalist militia company or two to supplement his Royal Army troops. Prévost also sent a diversionary force to invade Beaufort, South Carolina ostensibly to divert American forces away from Campbell’s march to Augusta.

An assault on the South Carolina coast to secure Port Royal Sound made military sense. The deep-water inlet would make an excellent staging port for any future invasion of Charleston. As part of the planned assault, the HMS Vigilant, judged unseaworthy by the navy, was towed by small rowing crafts to a location off Port Royal. Here it was to serve as a floating artillery battery to cover troop landings.[2] Accompanying this warship was a flotilla of crafts carrying 160 light infantry from the 16th Regiment and the 3rd and 4th battalions of the 60th Regiment under Maj. James Valentine Gardiner (sometimes spelled Gardner) whose orders were to capture Port Royal Island and Beaufort, the island’s main settlement.[3],

Gardiner made an amphibious troop landing at Hilton Head Island on February 1 as a military stepping stone, but encountered some resistance by a South Carolina militia unit under command of Capt. James Doharty. The British pursued the militia and kept them at bay. British ships, carrying an additional landing force, continued up the Broad River and anchored off Port Royal Island.

Meanwhile, the remnants of Savannah’s defenders that had fled combined with the nearby South Carolina militia. Under Continental Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln of Massachusetts, they set up a secondary defense against the British at the small community of Purrysburg located on the South Carolina bank of the Savannah River.[4] Lincoln’s intelligence informed him about the planned British advance on Port Royal as well as Beaufort. To counter the British move, Lincoln sent Brig. Gen. William Moultrie, with about 300 men, to cross the narrow northern bend of the Broad River to defend Beaufort.[5] Moultrie’s force, primarily comprised of South Carolina militia from the Beaufort area, was supplemented by a few Continental Army regulars and two companies of artillery from Charleston headed by signers of the Declaration of Independence Edward Rutledge and Thomas Heyward, Jr.[6]

On February 1, the British force left Hilton Head on the naval vessels bound for the Broad River near Beaufort. A small landing force went ashore to reconnoiter local patriot plantations and encountered little resistance during this foray. The next morning, British naval vessels cannonaded plantations ashore. Royal Army Capt. Patrick Murray was sent with a platoon of soldiers to burn several plantations. The first to be torched was the house of Captain Heyward. The following morning, HMS Lord George Germaine bombarded Brig. Gen. Stephen Bull’s house with cannon fire and dispersed a small gathering of militia. A landing force of the 60th Regiment pushed the militia into the woods. The British soldiers then removed furniture from Bull’s house and set the plantation on fire. Once the British returned to their ships, local patriot militiamen fired on the British ship with muskets but caused no significant damage.[7]

The major defense on nearby Port Royal Island came from the Fort Lyttelton garrison manned by a company of Continental Army troops under Capt, John DeTreville.[8] This fort guarded the water to the southwest as well as the land approach to Beaufort. DeTreville learned that a formidable British force was being assembled and likely would attack the fort, and so he ordered the fort’s cannons spiked to prevent their use to the potential invader, and blew up the main bastion.

At daybreak on February 3, three British companies were rowed ashore at the southern end of the Broad River along with a howitzer manned by two artillerymen and six sailors. After marching about two miles along the river’s shoreline, they engaged in a skirmish with some patriot militia outside the western side of the town of Beaufort. The British fired their howitzer but with little effect. After an indecisive fight, the participants prudently abandoned the battlefield—for the time being.

Major Gardiner reorganized his troops into nine platoons and continued to Roupelle’s Ferry, a well-known landmark on the riverbank. Meanwhile Brigadier General Moultrie and General Bull arrived in Beaufort on February 2. After conducting a reconnaissance of the town, they learned that Fort Lyttleton had been vacated, and Bull discovered that his plantation had been ravaged. Some locals informed the generals that Gardiner’s troops were slogging their way through the swampy marsh approximately five miles away. (It turned out the British were much closer.)

Moultrie planned to position his forces on tree-lined Gray’s Hill—a small elevation sitting on the mostly flat town of Beaufort—from which he wanted to mount the battle.[9] Unfortunately, Gardiner beat him to the spot, setting up about two-hundred yards from the tree line. The South Carolina militia then lined up across the road in the open, but safely out of the enemy’s musket range.Gardiner deployed his British soldiers at the edge of the woods and advanced with their bayonets fixed. The patriot forces formed in the open field. Moultrie deployed his two larger cannons and one small cannon to confront the British onslaught. Captain DeTreville, the former commander of Fort Lyttleton, and some of his men manned the lesser field piece.

I halted about two hundred yards distant from the enemy and drew up the troops to the right and left of the road with two field pieces (6 pounders) in the center and one small piece (2 pounder) on the right in the woods; on the enemies near approach, I ordered Captain Thomas Heyward to begin with the two field pieces and I advanced my right and left wings near of the swamp and then the firing became pretty general. This action was reversed from the usual way of fighting between the British and Americans; they taking the bushes and we taking the open ground. After some little time, finding our men too much exposed to the enemy’s fire, I ordered them to take to the trees; about three quarters of an hour after the action begin I heard a general cry go through the line ‘no more cartridges’   . upon this I ordered the field pieces to be drawn off very slowly; and the right and left wings to keep pace with the artillery to cover their flanks, which was done in tolerable good order for undisciplined troops; the enemy had beat their retreat before we began to move, but we have little or no ammunition and could not of consequence pursue.[10]

In time the British regrouped, and Gardiner rode forward to the patriot lines with a white handkerchief of surrender, his drawn sword requesting that the patriots send him an officer. Capt. Francis Kinlock soon met with Gardiner who requested that the Americans lay down their arms. Kinlock informed him that since the British were quite outnumbered, he would be wise to surrender himself. Gardiner was undeterred and returned to his troops.

The British howitzer once again opened fire, this time upon the South Carolina artillery, killing Lt. Benjamin Wilkins. The patriot artillery returned fire and the militiamen advanced. The American’s second cannon shot disabled the British howitzer killing two British lieutenants and wounding Gardiner’s horse. Soon after, Moultrie’s forces began to take casualties and they were ordered to take whatever cover that was available to them. The two opposing forces jostled in an attempt to out-flank each other, but without success. As the fight continued, three more British officers were wounded. After about forty-five minutes of firing their muskets, both sides were low on ammunition and powder and used this opportunity to start a withdrawal. During the scuffle Capt. John Barnwell of the South Carolina 1st Regiment light cavalry unit of fifteen horses remained at the periphery of the engagement. His men largely acted as scouts informing Moultrie and his officers of the British movements. When the British started to abandon the battlefield, Moultrie ordered Barnwell to pursue the retreating British and discourage their return. Barnwell’s cavalry unit chased after the British and nearly prevented them from reaching their boats. The mounted militiamen succeeded in capturing twenty-six men, but because of their own small numbers, they were only able to retain a wounded officer, a single non-commissioned officer, and sixmen of lower rank as prisoners.[11]

However, the British regrouped and were able to rescue the wounded officer and seven of the prisoners taken by the Americans. The British then withdrew before dusk to their landing point where forty Loyalist marines formed a defensive perimeter. All told, the Americans suffered eight killed and twenty-two wounded; the British casualty figures are listed as forty-four killed or wounded. Prévost was upset about the beating that Gardiner’s troops received at the hands of the upstart Americans. In truth, Gardiner was at a huge disadvantage since he never received the expected Loyalist support.[12] Lincoln attempted to counter Prévost’s forces in April by moving his American force toward Augusta. Unfortunately Prévost moved his troops to blockade Port Royal Island, thus the British again briefly reoccupied Beaufort during the campaign.

The British invasion force, outnumbered three to two, was at a disadvantage and in no position to fight the many militiamen amassed to oppose them. The British professionals fought well despite their comparatively heavy battle losses. Moultrie’s troops lingered longer on the battlefield, thus claiming credit for the encounter as an American victory—at least that was the story from South Carolinians. The patriots accomplished their mission by successfully driving British forces from Port Royal Island and compelling them to return to Savannah.

Although relatively small in size compared to other South Carolina battles, the 1779 Battle of Port Royal Island was the state’s first land engagement between professional British regular troops and local American militia units supplemented by Continental Army forces. They represented a diverse cross-section of South Carolina backgrounds.[13] This 1778-1779 winter campaign was a draw, but by calling it an American victory, it boosted morale and recruitment for the Continental Army.[14] The local newspaper noted, “If the people of this state will now exert themselves, there may soon be another Burgoyne in the southern quarter of America.”[15] The British reported that their casualties were only thirty “notwithstanding the exaggerated accounts lately propagated by some people.” They acknowledged, however, that the Americans “made some stand, but being attacked by our forces, though much in number, they were put to flight, and afterwards, suffered our men to retreat to their boats without ever firing a gun.”[16]

The Beaufort conflict had a short-lived effect. It served to temporarily discourage the British from continuing their southern strategy. Between March 29 and May 12, 1780, however, British forces blockaded the port of Charleston. Major General Lincoln, who had overseen the Battle of Beaufort, had been assigned to command the Charleston garrison. After enduring about six weeks of siege, Lincoln was forced to surrender his forces to the British, resulting in one of the worst American defeats during the Revolutionary War.[17]

 

[1] Lawrence Rowland, Alexander Moore, George Rogers, The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina: 1514–1861 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1996), 100-103.

[2]HMS Vigilant, a 64-gun, third-rate ship of the line, was built in 1774. The vessel was converted to a prison shipin 1799, sank in 1806, sailed again for a short time, and then was finally razed in 1814.

[3]Rowland, et al., The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, 100, 216.

[4]David K. Wilson, The Southern Strategy: Britain’s Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia, 1775–1780(Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2005), 82.

[5]Ibid., 52-53, 97. Moultrie had distinguished himself during the 1776 Battle of Sullivan’s Island, which was an island guarding the northern entrance to Charleston’s harbor. The heroic action of Moultrie and his men became the inspiration for South Carolina’s state symbol, a palmetto and crescent moon. Col. Moultrie chose blue to match the color of their uniforms and a silver crescent, the emblem worn on the front of their caps. Palmetto logs were used to build their fortification walls and effectively hindered many cannon balls from doing damage.

[6]Russell, L., The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, 104.

[7]Ibid., 217.

[8]Ibid., 215.

[9]This engagement is also known as the Battle of Gray’s Hill in some historical documents.

[10]William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution so far as related to the States of North and South Carolina and Georgia, (New York: NY, printed for the author by David Longworth, 1802, 2 vols.), 1:292-93.

[11]  Rowland, et al., The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina., 218.

[12]David Lee Russell, The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland 200), 100.

[13]This mixed force included Scotch-Irish and German immigrants, some African Americans (it is not clear if they were free men or slaves), and members of the state’s small Jewish population.The latter were part of a special militia corps of volunteer infantry, largely composed of Jews who lived in or near Charleston. Among those who served under Moultrie at the Battle of Beaufort were David N. Cardozo, Jacob I. Cohen, and Joseph Solomon.

[14]This was the only engagement in which two signers of America’s Declaration of Independence fought side-by-side in battle, Edward Rutledge and Thomas Heyward, Jr.    Of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration, only twelve fought in battle during the Revolutionary War.

[15]South Carolina and American Gazette, February 4, 1779.

[16]Royal Georgia Gazette,February 11, 1779.

[17]Besides the American surrender following the siege of Charleston, Lincoln was involved in two other major surrenders during the Revolutionary War. He participated in the Battle of Saratoga contributing to Gen. John Burgoyne’s surrender of a British army and, as George Washington’s second in command, Lincoln formally accepted the British surrender at Yorktown.

 

Additional Reading:

Warren Ripley, “Port Royal Island Battle Boosted Patriot Morale” in Battleground South Carolina in the Revolution(Charleston, SC: Evening Post Publishing Co., 1983).

Charles H. Lesser, Sources for the American Revolution at the South Carolina(Columbia, SC: Department of Archives and History, 2000).

Edward Crady, The History of South Carolina in the Revolution: 1775-1780(New York, NY: Russell and Russell, 1901).

 

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