On Port Royal Island, British light infantry under Major Valentine Gardiner and South Carolina forces under Brigadier-General William Moultrie deployed for battle.
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.
Battle of Port Royal Island in Miniature. British light infantry of the 16th (yellow facings) and 60th regiments (blue facings) face off against South Carolina militia, including the Charleston Artillery.
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.
Gardiner 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 (discussed in Part 1).
Several estimates of British losses appear below.
Young stated that the British held together only 70 rank and file by the end of the battle and that about half of the force (total strength was close to 160 men) was made casualties.
General Bull shared the following information in a letter to Moultrie dated February 12, 1779:
“Yesterday seven sailors, deserters from the Lord George Germain ship of war, were brought in by a party from one of our picquets; they say that the fleet is on their way to Savannah; that their land troops lost, in the action with us on Port-Royal, forty killed and wounded, and that the night after the action, an express was sent by a boat to Savannah, for a reinforcement, but the answer was, none could be spared, and that the fleet must return…”
The Royal Georgia Gazette (as cited by The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina: 1514-1861), stated that British casualties were only 30.
Moultrie, in an after action report to Major-General Benjamin Lincoln, stated that there was 1 officer mortally wounded, 3 other officers wounded, “with six or seven privates killed in the field, and fifteen wounded.”
Moultrie identified the officers by name and he later compiled a return of losses for those of other ranks in the two Charleston militia companies (published in Volume 1 of his 1802 memoirs). These add up to 14 named men:
- Charleston Artillery. Mortally wounded: Lieutenant Benjamin Wilkins, S. Wilkins, John Fraser. Wounded: Captain Thomas Heyward (in arm), John Anthony, John Calvert, Anthony Watts, John Green, and John Laurence.
- Charleston Light Infantry. Wounded: Lieutenant Archibald Brown, Lieutenant Sawyer, John Collins, John Righton, and John D. Miller.
The Charleston militia was not the only body of American troops at the battle. According to Boatner's Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, total American losses were 8 killed, 22 wounded.
This account of the battle of Port Royal Island is based primarily on Peter Young’s (1967) The British Army, William Moultrie's (Volume 1, 1802) memoirs, and Lawrence Rowland, Alexander Moore, and George Rogers' (Volume 1, 1996) The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina.