Episode 050

A Royal Disaster – The Battle of Port Royal Island

In February 1779, A diversionary British force is in South Carolina, clashes with Continental forces on Port Royal Island, lead by our old friend Brig. General William Moultrie.

In December, 1778, British troops under Lieutenant-Colonel Archibald Campbell captured Savannah, Georgia. The following January, Brigadier-General Augustine Prévost arrived in Savannah and took command of British forces in the south.
Prévost laid out his plans to George Germain, Secretary of State for America, in a letter dated January 18, 1779:

“…I shall immediately proceed up the river to see what advantages can be expected from the frontier inhabitants of Carolina who give the strongest hopes of joining heartily whenever they find that they are to be supported. Should it appear that they do not mean to take the active part which they have promised, I shall confine my plan of operations to harassing the enemy by excursions and effectually securing this province, to which all the loyal subjects who have fled to Florida for shelter will soon return if they can be assured of being protected. If, on the contrary, the frontier inhabitants should evince the zeal which they profess, I cannot doubt but great advantages may be delivered from a diversion on their side supported by an attack at Beaufort or any of the settlements on the coast of South Carolina…”

In other words, Prévost intended to drive into the Georgian backcountry in order to galvanize American Loyalists, while at the same time launching a diversionary attack on the South Carolina post.

To effect this plan, Prévost made his headquarters at Ebenezer, Georgia, a town 25 miles northwest of Savannah, and roughly opposite Purrysburg, South Carolina, where Major-General Benjamin Lincoln was assembling a large American army.

On January 24, Prévost sent Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell with a large force [1] to take Augusta, and sent a diversion against the South Carolina coast. In his words:

“In order to facilitate further the success of Colonel Campbell’s operations… I sent three companies of light infantry that came from Florida to go up Beaufort River under the escort of the Vigilant, and to draw the enemy’s spies about us to conceive that more troops were sent by sending a regiment of Hessians to the place of embarkation two miles from Savannah and marching them in the night back to their barracks.”

The three companies of light infantry belonged to the 16th regiment, and the 3rd and 4th battalions of the 60th regiment. This small force, no more than 160 men, was commanded by Major Valentine Gardiner. Nevertheless, their arrival on the South Carolina coast put the Americans in a state of alarm.

Colonel Charles Cotesworth Pinckney described the popular feeling in Charleston, South Carolina, in a letter to Brigadier-General William Moultrie:

“…many people think, this movement of the enemy is to post themselves at Port-Royal, and there wait reinforcements from the northward; others, that it was done only to cause a division and to weaken your little army, that they might more easily pass the river [i.e., so that Prévost could cross the Savannah River and invade South Carolina]; others, that it was to destroy the town and fort, plunder and return to Tybee [an island near Savannah]; but some with more penetrating looks and significant nods; that the vessels appearing in scull creek, as if intended, (Port-Royal was, or is, only a feint,) to cover a real design of landing suddenly on the Euhaws, march to a pass of consequence near Elliott’s hill, on the southern road, and there throw up some field works, which with a few cannon will entirely cut off the communication from town to Gen. Lincoln’s army, and put him between two fires; this last manoevre, is thought of so much consequence to the public safety, as to raise the public anxiety…”

Lincoln was not deceived, and he remained at Purrysburg with his army. However, Lincoln also did not want to see a key fort on Port-Royal Island fall to the British. He therefore ordered General Moultrie to take control of South Carolina militia on and near Port-Royal Island and defend that threatened post.

The British landed on coastal islands, where they burned a number of plantations and captured several hundred slaves. Their excuse for burning plantations was that they “received very abusive language from the people on shore,” “or had found some illiberal words written with chalk on the walls, against them.”
American forces on Port Royal Island consisted of a small detachment of the 4th South Carolina regiment (Captain John de Tréville commanding) and some militia. These men defended Fort Lyttleton, which protected the town of Beaufort, but which could not stop the British from landing and raiding elsewhere. On January 31, the militia abandoned the fort. Captain de Tréville then hastily spiked the guns and blew up the fort .

That night, Brigadier-General William Moultrie reached the ferry crossing to Port Royal Island and learned that the fort had been destroyed. A sizeable force of South Carolina militia encamped near the ferry, including men from the relatively well trained and equipped Charleston regiment.

On February 2, Moultrie crossed over to Port Royal Island with close to 300 men, and the next morning he marched into Beaufort. There, Moultrie found that some arms and supplies could be salvaged from Fort Lyttleton, but before any action could be taken, word was received that the British were about 5 miles away. Moultrie then assembled the men and marched after them. [4]

The two forces met about halfway between Beaufort and the island ferry. At this point, the British we re between the Americans and the ferry. At the same time, the Americans threatened to separate the British from their boats.

Captain Patrick Murray, who commanded a British light infantry company, claimed that the battle was fought “along the road to the entry of Rhodes’ Swamp, where—on the crest of the Pina Barren beyond the swamp where the trees were felled but not cleared off.” [5]

The Americans halted about 200 yards from the British. The Charleston Artillery deployed in the road, and the infantry were deployed in two wings that extended into the woods on either side. Captain de Tréville took with him a 2-pounder when he abandoned Fort Lyttleton; this gun was positioned in support of the right wing.

The British troops consisted of three light infantry companies supported by a small howitzer (manned by 2 gunners and 6 sailors). The infantry deployed in nine platoons, which from left to right (when facing the Americans), were commanded by Lieutenant Joseph Breitenbach (4th battalion, 60th regiment) Captain Patrick Murray (4/60th), Lieutenant Rowland Hosleton (4/60th), Ensign James Finlay (3rd battalion, 60th regiment), Captain George Bruère (3/60th), Ensign Enoch Plumer (3/60th), Lieutenant John Skinner (16th regiment), Major Colin Graham (16th), Lieutenant William Calderwood (16th). Each platoon contained around 16 men

Major Gardiner galloped up to the Americans with a white handkerchief hanging from the tip of his drawn sword and demanded that they surrender. Allegedly, Lieutenant Francis Kinloch, Moultrie’s aide-de-camp, responded by saying that ‘they had too much British blood in their veins to yield their post without dispute,’ and the American militia cheered.

When Gardiner returned to his lines, the British howitzer fired, and the bursting shell mortally wounded Lieutenant Benjamin Wilkins of the Charleston Artillery.

The American 6-pounders responded, and the second shot struck the British gun carriage. At that moment, the sailor carrying the matchstick fled, leaving the howitzer out of action for the rest of the battle.

Moultrie then advanced his two wings and a general engagement ensued.

The British tried to turn the flanks of the American line, but those on the left (troops of the 4/60th under Lieutenant Breitenbach) could not negotiate the felled trees, and those on the right (troops of the 16th under Lieutenant Calderwood) found that the Charleston militia presented too extensive a line.

Meanwhile, the American guns raked the British line with both solid shot and grape shot. Ensign Plumer was struck down by the wind of a cannon ball that passed under Major Gardiner’s horse. Major Graham was struck twice by grapeshot, and Ensign Finlay was mortally wounded.

The American infantry then launched their own attack. Captain Murray refused the left flank, and as he dressed the line, he was struck in the right buttocks by a piece of grape shot.

On the other end of the line, Lieutenant Skinner repelled an attack against the British right. Skinner took command of this end of the line after Lieutenant Calderwood was mortally wounded.

The American guns drove the British to seek cover behind brush on either side of the road. Captains Murray and Bruère rallied the troops on the left (eastern) side of the road, and Major Gardiner and Lieutenant Skinner rallied the troops on the right.

Gardi ner then decided to retreat and he sent one Corporal Craig of the 16th across the roadway to deliver the orders to Murray and Bruère. Murray, however, claimed he could not safely retreat, and besides, his men were at last pushing back the Americans. The brush provided his men with an opportunity. In the words of Moultrie, “this action was reversed from the usual way of fighting, between the British and Americans; they taking to the bushes and we remaining upon the open ground…” Murray sent Corporal Craig back, and Gardiner rescinded his order.

As the militia fell back, Bruère’s men worked their way into range of the American cannon, and appeared to silence the guns. (According to Moultrie, the American guns were running low on ammunition). But then Bruère was struck in the ribs and he made his way to a log house in the rear of the line that had become a makeshift hospital.

During the fight, Captain John Barnwell, who commanded a troop of 15 light horse, remained on the edges of the fight, sending messages back to the American line on the British movements. At about this time, Barnwell saw an opportunity, and his troop swept down on the British line, sending Gardiner fleeing before them, and cutting him off from the British line. Barnwell’s troop then reached the log house where they captured Bruère and 14 other men.

The battlefield at this point must have been a smoke-drenched and confused place, for both sides would be convinced that they had decisively beaten their foe.

Below is historian Peter Young’s description of the conclusion of the battle, which was based primarily on Captain Murray’s written recollection.

“For as the Americans fell back, Murray was advancing: the 16th on the right; the 60th on the left; the centre open. The flank platoons, those of Calderwood and Baron Breitenbach had orders to charge in as soon as they should gain the enemy’s flanks. A solitary American rifleman, doubtless one of the Virginians [sic], stayed behind when the rest gave way and shot Murray through the left arm, just as he was waving it to signal Breitenbach to charge from the flank, while he himself attacked frontally. Murray fainted, and his men paused, giving the Americans time to bring up their horses and draw off the gun.

“The final British charge was made in open order, but the American riflemen did not wait for the bayonet: throwing away their arms, they made off.

“On the British right things followed much the same course. Lieutenant Skinner, now the senior unwounded officer, made a spirited attack and drove the Americans back to the ground from which they had advanced. They retired in confusion, threatened on both flanks.”

By contrast, below is an excerpt from General Moultrie’s after-action report to Major-General Benjamin Lincoln, dated February 4, 1779:

“after some little time finding our men too much exposed to the enemy’s fire, I ordered them to take trees; about three quarters of an hour after the action began, I heard a general cry through the line, of ‘no more cartridges ;’ and was also informed by Captains Heyward and Rutledge, that the ammunition for the field-pieces was almost expended, after firing about forty rounds from each piece: upon this I ordered the field-pieces to be drawn off very slowly; and their right and left wings to keep pace with the artillery to cover their flanks, which was done in tolerable order for undisciplined troops: the enemy had beat their retreat before we began to move, but we had little or no ammunition, and could not of consequence pursue: they retreated so hastily as to leave an officer, one sergeant, and three privates, wounded, in a house near the action, and their dead lying on the field. It is impossible as yet to be particular with respect, to the latter. Two officers we have found and seven men they fought from behind the bushes.”

At this point it was late in the day, the British had taken considerable losses (perhaps 1 in 4 had been killed or wounded), and they had used up most of their ammunition. The British decided to withdraw to their boats, leaving behind their killed and some of their wounded.

One small solace was that as the British withdrew, they had a brush with Barnwell’s mounted men, which led to the recovery of most of the men Barnwell had taken. (Barnwell retained only 1 sergeant and 6 rank and file as prisoners).

The action at Port Royal Island brought the British raid into South Carolina to a close. The raid failed to significantly distract the American high command in the south, who continued to focus on preventing the British conquest of the Georgian backcountry

Also published on Medium.

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  • Pelatiah Adams

    Just visited Beaufort this weekend and located Barnwell’s grave in the Baptist Church graveyard, an amazing place, founded in 1711. What an amazing town!

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