August 5, 2023 at 11:02 a.m.
The Battle of Stono Ferry
The Battle of Stono Ferry occurred on June 20, 1779 after the fall of Savannah, Georgia, which was the first time the British military presence had been felt in the south since the beginning of the American Revolution, and was a precursor to the siege and eventual fall of Charleston, South Carolina. Although this occurred several months prior to the official beginning of the British Southern Campaign, the focus can clearly be seen as moving to the south.
As is widely known, the British had reached a stalemate in the north. British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Henry Clinton decided to move south, in hopes of rallying Loyalists support in the Carolinas and choking off the support for the Patriots. With Savannah in British hands, Clinton decided to increase the grip on the south, especially South Carolina, by taking Charlestown. Patriot Major General Benjamin Lincoln kept the pressure on Savannah, and the surrounding area, leading to several skirmishes in the area; however, when the British learned that the Americans had weakened their rear guard on Charleston, British Brigadier General Augustine Prevost’s army of 2,500 regulars marched out of Savannah and moved towards Charleston approximately 108 miles away. Prevost’s army was in pursuit of Patriot Brigadier General William Moultrie’s militia men. Subsequently, the British army was beaten down by the Lowcountry June weather, and the exhausting energy of crossing numerous rivers and swamps. In addition, they were far from their home base and low on supplies causing their advance to be slowed and finally stopping within seven miles of Charleston. Upon learning of mounting defenses on Charleston Neck, Prevost abandoned any attempts on the city, lingered just south on John’s Island, and decided to evacuate by sea because of reports that Lincoln, learning of the threat on Charleston, had moved his expeditionary force back towards the region.
On June 16th, Prevost began the extraction of his army by boat from John’s Island back to Savannah, leaving the 71st Highlanders, the Hessian forces, and the Loyalists, totaling 900 troops, to cover the retreat on the mainland at Stono Ferry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Maitland. Priority fell to moving the baggage, horses, and the sick across the Stono River, and not for defense. The front of the British consisted of two square redoubts with a battery, each containing three artillery pieces aimed down the road. On the right was a marshy area and a deep creek leading to a very narrow causeway which was defended by a round redoubt with one piece of artillery posted outside of the last work. A small breastwork rested on the bank, and at the right angles with the river were two more field pieces. The ground chosen was flat and covered at a small distance from the works by a grove of large pines. As the British established their area, Lincoln sent word to Charleston instructing Moultrie to bring his troops from the city down to take James Island, and eventually John’s Island. Moultrie’s main mission was to fool Prevost into thinking the main attack would be in the rear, skewing the actual plan of Lincoln’s attacking from the mainland.
Lincoln moved his army of 1,200 on June 20th with the North Carolina militia on the right under the command of Brigadier John Butler, and a group of Continentals on the left under Brigadier General Jethro Sumner. The flanks were covered by the light troops of Lieutenant Colonel William Henderson, and Colonel Frances de Malmedy leading the corps. The Patriot reserve consisted of the cavalry, and a small group of Virginia militia.
Maitland’s pickets announced the Patriot force’s approach at 7:00 am. The 71st Regiment of Foot was posted on the right, Lieutenant Colonel John Hamilton’s Royal North Carolina composed the center, and regiment of Hessian auxiliaries held the left. The British flanks were secure as one rested on a deep ravine, and the other near a swampy morass, both of which were assailable, and firm enough to bear infantry, and the other was not connected to substantial water. Two companies of the 71st moved into position where the retiring pickets were, and as they rushed into the fight, were mostly destroyed until only eleven men were left standing. This early success encouraged the Patriots, who were now ordered to conserve their ammunition, and let the battle depend solely on the use of the bayonet.
In the opening moments of the battle, the Patriots overwhelmed the garrison with the British responding with artillery, and small arms fire when the attackers were within fifty yards. Disobeying orders, the Patriot line returned fire, which continued without ceasing for thirty minutes. The Patriot surge became generalized and penetrated the British line driving them back. Maitland moved quickly with the 71st from the right to the left and supplied the vacancies with his reserves. The Highlanders renewed the battle on the left, and the Hessians rallied again being brought into the line where the action raged with increased fury. Lincoln, annoyed by the fact his battle plan had been interrupted, exerted himself to stop the firing. After a slight pause, the Patriot charge renewed itself, however, was unsuccessful. As the fight extended for an hour, Prevost’s force showed itself materializing on John’s Island to reinforce Maitland’s defenses.
Lincoln ordered retreat only after seeing that the causeway leading from John’s Island, measuring approximately three-fourths of a mile long and 28 feet wide was completely covered with British reinforcements. At this point, Lincoln believed the assault was pointless. Mounted Patriot units, and the Virginia militia covered the disordered withdrawal, which was perceived by Maitland who advanced on Lincoln with his entire force. The Patriot cavalry, under the command of Brigadier General Casimir Pulaski, was ordered to charge the British whose zealous pursuit had thrown them into some disorder. Pouring full fire from his rear rank, the front held its ground and charged bayonets, subduing the charging Patriots, and allowed them to retreat. Maitland had no horse in order to pursue Pulaski, so he returned to the three redoubts. Moultrie finally arrived; however, the battle had already concluded. In total, the British reported losses of 26 killed, 93 wounded, and 1 missing, while the Patriots lost 30 killed, 116 wounded, and 155 men missing with many of these being attributed to desertion.
From the Patriot perspective, Moultrie failed with the diversion because he lacked enough boats to move his troops and weather is cited as causing a delay as well as pure incompetence, while Lincoln was short of ammunition (Author’s note: This author questions what made this happen since the force should have had a supply line, which in no way would have been threatened by the British, and there should not have been a shortage.), his force was unfamiliar with the broken swamps and creeks, and Maitland’s reinforced fortification of the three redoubts were too strongly entrenched, and defended. In addition, the British ship Thunder lay off the coast of John’s Island and fired into the Patriot lines. All factors caused Lincoln’s assault to be poorly executed. In the days which followed, both armies continued to harass each other from a distance. Patriot galleys from James Island captured a British schooner which was loaded with furniture plundered from local households. On 23 June, the British moved from the area to Beaufort on Port Royal Island. Prevost had lost Charleston; however, he would continue to successfully defend Savannah from a Continental and French siege in September.
The Battle of Stono Ferry sealed Prevost’s fate on the move to Charleston in 1779. Although the move was a failure, the battle was marked as a British victory since they held the field at the end of the day. In addition, this failure allowed the British army to gain valuable intelligence on the grounds and defenses around Charleston. Since they had already traveled the area, they were able to map out the marshy swamps, and creeks to the south, and have this information readily available, which would prove to be valuable the following year with the siege of Charleston. Also, the British observed how disorganized the Patriots were, especially the militia, and realized the areas citizenry were in fact Loyalists simply awaiting the arrival of British regulars instead of being against the King. Understanding this battle allows historians to explain what made the British revisit an attack on Charleston the following year. Although they still reeled from the attempt on Charleston in 1776, the events of the battle and the information provided by Prevost assisted Clinton, and the ministers in London to attack again.
Today, although truly unrecognizable, a portion of the garrison along the Stono River has been preserved thanks to the efforts of the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust. Also, a nearby plaque commemorating the battle can be seen in modern-day Hollywood, South Carolina.
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