For the 6 months following the British victory at Savannah in late 1778, the war in the south became a series of probing actions by both sides. The first of these battles began when the British commander, Gen. Augustine Prevost, sent 200 British Regulars, under the command of Maj. ?? Gardiner, to seize Port Royal Island at the mouth of the Broad River in South Carolina. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, the American commander in the south, sent Gen. William Moultrie, along with 300 militia, to stop the British advance.
Prevost took advantage of hissuperior naval power and ordered a turning movement against the town of Beaufort. Lincoln was aware of this British threat and ordered Moultrie to oppose it.
On February 3, the British approached and tried to force the Americans to leave Beaufort, Moultrie was waiting with 300 militia, 20 Continentals, and 3 cannon. The Americans repulsed their attack in less than an hour. The Americans had to fight in the open while the British had some cover from the woods. The Americans knocked out one of the British guns and erased the British advantage early in the battle. The Americans had run out of ammunition and Moultrie ordered a retreat. At the same time, he learned that the British were also retreating. He then countermanded his retreat order and told his mounted troops to advance upon the retreating British. The British were able to escape by boat to Savannah and Moultrie moved his force south to rejoin Lincoln.
British losses were heavy and they soon retreated to their ships. The American victory discouraged the British Army from taking any further action into South Carolina for 3 months.
From the Battleground South Carolina in the Revolution, Warren Ripley, The News Courier and The Evening Post, Charleston, SC, 1983.
The Battle of Port Royal Island, Feb. 3, 1779, was little more than a hot skirmish, but it gave flagging Patriot morale a needed boost.
The British had landed a raiding force of 200 men and a howitzer on the island and although no attempt was made to capture Beaufort or assault Fort Lyttleton guarding it, the militia garrisoning the fort promptly took to their heels. This left the fort’s commander and his 20 men, all Continentals, no alternative but to spike the cannon and abandon the work.
He later was court-martialed, but completely exonerated since it was impossible for 20 men to defend the fort. No date for the landing or loss of the fort has been found, but it probably occurred about the end of January 1779.
About this time, 300 Charleston militia infantry supported by two field-pieces of the Charleston Artillery Battalion were dispatched to counter this British invasion of Palmetto State territory. The troops marched as far as Port Royal Ferry across Whale Branch, about 10 miles north of Beaufort, and set up camp on the mainland side.
There, on the night of Feb. 1, they were joined by their commander, Gen. William Moultrie, hero of the Battle of Sullivan’s Island on June 28, 1776. Moultrie found his men in hot debate over whether to cross the river which presumably would lead to fighting and the possibility that someone might get hurt.
Fortunately, about this time a small group of Beaufort militia, considerably braver than those who had left the fort, arrived at Moultrie’s camp and persuaded the Charleston men to cross the river and help defend the town.
Consequently, Moultrie left a guard for the camp and set out to cross Whale Branch. Today, a modern bridge whisks a car across the tidal stream in less than a minute. Moultrie, using the civilian ferry which probably was little more than a flatboat, began crossing his "army" during the morning of Feb. 2. By sunset he had 300 men and his artillery on the island and set out for Beaufort.
He arrived at the outskirts during the night, rested his troops for a few hours, then marched into town at sunrise, Feb. 3.
Leaving the troops to set up camp, Moultrie and his staff went junketing
— they rode out to view the abandoned fort. While there, a messenger arrived with news that the British, who apparently had been inactive since landing, were now headed for town and only five miles away.
Moultrie sent an officer on a fast horse racing ahead to alert the troops who were in ranks and ready to march by the time the general came galloping into town.
Another scout now reported that the British were fast approaching, so Moultrie hurriedly started his small army moving toward the enemy.
After marching about two miles, he received a third report — the British were not so close after all. They were still four miles away.
Granted more time, the general slowed the march and began looking for a favorable battleground. Before long, he found an excellent site, formed his troops, then sat back to await arrival of the enemy.
After an hour, no Redcoats had arrived, but a new report indicated they had changed their route and were now headed toward Port Royal Ferry.
Fearing his camp would be captured, Moultrie ordered his men into column again and set out in pursuit. He had gone about three miles and reached the vicinity of modern Grays Hill when another scout galloped up. The Redcoats were returning from the ferry, the scout reported and were less than a mile away.
As it turned out, the British had reached the ferry, but found the tide low and the ferry unable to operate. Consequently, they had given up the idea of attacking the camp and headed toward town.
Moultrie now looked desperately for the best available site for fighting and picked a swamp that would give his men cover. He headed for it only to discover the Redcoats already were in possession.
Halting about 200 yards from the enemy, the general formed his troops in a line across the road with the two fieldpieces, both 6-pounders, in the center. A third gun, a little 2-pounder which belonged to the Beaufort militia, he emplaced on the right protected by some woods. This piece was manned by the captain, who formerly commanded the fort, and several other officers, all voluntarily serving as privates.
The Americans opened the battle with fire from the two center artillery pieces, then Moultrie ordered both his wings to advance nearer the swamp and, as he put it, "...the firing became pretty general...."
The battle was the reverse of most Revolutionary War engagements —the Americans were in the open and the British snugged down amid bushes and brush at the edge of the swamp.
Before long, Moultrie found that his men were getting the worst of it and ordered them to take cover behind trees. The battle had now been going for about 45 minutes and the dreaded cry, "no more cartridges," was raised along the American line.
The artillery also reported that after firing about 40 rounds from each piece, they were almost out of ammunition. Faced with impending defeat, Moultrie ordered the guns withdrawn and the infantry to fall back, keeping pace with the artillery. This was a particularly dangerous maneuver with undisciplined militia who were prone to seek safety in flight at the slightest hint of retreat.
However, Moultrie was lucky — the Redcoats had started a quiet withdrawal just before the Americans. With no pressure against them, Moultrie’s untrained militia performed like veterans.
The mutual retreat left victory a tossup. But Moultrie, whose troops were a little slower, was last on the field and claimed credit for the battle which has come down in history as an American victory.
In retrospect, both sides did pretty well under the circumstances. The British, only 200 strong, obviously planned only to threaten Gen. Benjamin Lincoln’s supply line between Purrysburgh and Charleston and were in no position to fight the hordes of militia that could be aroused against them. Outnumbered three to two, these professionals held their own despite bad luck at the start of the battle. Their only artillery piece, the howitzer, was put out of action by a shot from one of the American 6-pounders.
The Americans, although untrained militia, stood in the open against the British regulars, a rare occurrence during the Revolution. They also, even if subject to argument, did hold the field at the end of the battle and thus, technically at least, were the winners. The Americans also accomplished their mission of driving off the enemy for the British left Port Royal Island and returned to Savannah.
Eight Americans were killed and 22 wounded. British casualties are difficult to ascertain, but were said to have been heavy. However, all sources of this information are American and may be inclined to exaggerate. Moreover, since the Americans, fighting in the open, had relatively light casualties, it seems doubtful that the British, with greater protection, would have suffered more. This is especially true since neither side seems to have made any real attempt to close and get down to serious fighting.
Consequently, American statements that the British lost all of their officers are probably wishful thinking and perhaps exaggeration of the two they did lose.
These officers were exhumed from shallow graves on the field and reburied by the Americans with full honors in St. Helena’s Episcopal Church cemetery. Certainly, had there been others, they would have been similarly honored.