In December, 1778, a British fleet of thirty seven sail, arrived off Savannah in Georgia, and landed about 4000 men. One half of these, under Col. Campbell, immediately made an attack upon the town. Gen. Howe, with six or seven hundred Americans, attempted to oppose them; but was defeated at the first onset. The enemy took possession of the town; and, as the Georgia militia were backward in turning out, the whole country soon fell under their dominion. Shortly after the taking of Savannah, Gen. Lincoln took command of the American army, and Gen. Prevost of the British.
On the 3rd of Feb. 1779, Gen. Moultrie, with a party of about 300 militia, mostly citizens of Charleston and Beaufort, with the company of ancient artillery of Charleston, was posted at Beaufort, where he heard the enemy was advancing. He immediately dispatched his aid, Capt. Francis Kinloch, to reconnoitre; while he moved forward on the road to Beaufort ferry. Kinloch returning soon, stated the supposed force of the British, and that they were near upon the road; Moultrie now pushed on to gain a defile, but found it occupied by the enemy. There being no alternative, he then drew up his men in open ground, with two field pieces in the centre, and one on the right. The British force was two companies of picked light infantry, posted under cover of a swamp. The militia engaged them, and fought under this disadvantage till their ammunition was all expended, and Moultrie ordered a retreat; but the British made a simultaneous movement, and it became a drawn battle. Lieut. Wilkins of the ancient artillery, was mortally wounded, and seven men were killed. Capt. Heyward, Lieuts. Sawyer and Brown, and fifteen men, were wounded. In the general’s account of the action, the loss of the British is not stated; he speaks highly of the conduct of his officers and men; particularly of Capt. John Barnwell; and indeed it was no little matter, thus to bring militia, in the open field, to fight regulars under cover.
Lincoln’s force was fluctuating, as it consisted principally of militia, who could not be brought under control; and in the midst of arms, when the enemy were at the distance of only three miles, their officers refused to subject them to the articles of war; and insisted upon their being tried by the militia laws of the state, which only subjected them to a small pecuniary fine. The case too was a flagrant one; a private of Col. Kershaw’s regiment had absented himself from guard, and upon being reproved by his captain, gave him abusive language; the captain ordered him under guard, and the man attempted to shoot his officer; but was prevented. This case was referred to the general assembly then sitting, who also refused to bring the militia under the articles of war. Had Gen. Jackson lately submitted to such an interference with his authority, we should never have heard of the glorious victory of New Orleans. Gen. Lincoln would have nothing more to do with the militia, and gave up the command of them to Gen. Moultrie, to act with them as a separate corps. Pursuant to this resolution, and after calling a council of war, he marched off (20th April) about 2000 light troops and cavalry, for Augusta, leaving his baggage to follow.
Near Augusta, he expected a reinforcement of 3000 men, and his intentions were to take possession of some strong post in Georgia, to circumscribe the limits of the enemy, and to prevent their receiving recruits from the Cherokee Indians, and Tories. He left Gen. Moultrie, with about 1200 militia, at Black Swamp. As soon as Gen. Prevost heard of this movement, he availed himself of it, and immediately crossed over the Savannah, from Abercorn to Purysburgh, twenty-five miles below Black Swamp, with the intention of surprising Moultrie, but he, receiving intelligence of his crossing, retired to Coosawhatchie. At this place he left a rear guard, and pitched his head quarters on the hill to the eastward of Tulifinny, two miles in advance towards Charleston. (1st May.) After reconnoitring the fords of Coosawhatchie, and Tulifinny above the bridges, the general found so little water in the swamps, from the excessive drought which then prevailed,4 that he determined not to risk an action at this post. He was about to send one of his aids to bring off his rear guard, when Col. John Laurens offered himself as a volunteer for that service; he was readily accepted, and Captain, afterwards Major, John James, with 150 picked riflemen, was sent to cover his flanks: these, with the rear guard, made near a fourth of the retreating army. Instead of bringing off the rear guard, Col. Laurens drew them over to the east side of the river, posted the riflemen at the bridge, threw off the planks, and engaged the enemy. The British occupied the houses on the west bank, from which they kept up a galling fire; a number of Laurens’ men were killed and wounded, and, as he was very conspicuous on horse back in regimentals, with a large white plume, he was soon wounded himself, and his horse killed. Laurens then retired, and Captain, afterwards Col., Shubrick ordered a retreat. [May 3?]
In the mean time Moultrie had decamped, and the riflemen were obliged, as the planks were thrown off, to pass Tulifinny and Pocotaligo bridges on the string pieces; and did not overtake the main body till they had passed Saltketcher bridge.
Here let us pause for a moment, and take a view of the ground; twelve miles of country had been passed over in one morning, which was a continued defile of causeway, lined on both sides with either thick woods, or ditches and fences, and four rivers had been crossed; over which were high bridges, and only a slight skirmish had taken place. True, the swamps above the bridges were dry, but then they were so wide and thick, that the British would never have ventured into them. It is likewise true that Col. Laurens said the militia would not fight, yet the riflemen stood till they were ordered to retreat, and their retreat had like to have been cut off. Laurens was not wrong in fighting, for it is always best to keep militia employed: but in engaging without orders, and in not burning down the houses near the river, he is blamed by Gen. Moultrie.5 However Moultrie himself was more to blame in suffering the enemy to pass over Coosawhatchie. At least they ought not to have been permitted to cross the Saltketcher. There is no doubt but Moultrie was a firm patriot and a brave soldier, but he acted now under the impulse of an opinion, which then generally prevailed among the officers of the South Carolina troops, that Charleston was all important, and if taken, the state must be lost. We shall see the effect of this system in the end. In the same manner the Edisto and Ashley were now passed, without striking a blow. The Americans suffered greatly both for provisions and for the want of water, drinking out of every puddle in the road, however filthy. The enemy, on the contrary, passed through the richest part of the state, and were suffered to scatter themselves abroad, and to satiate themselves with choice fare, and valuable plunder. General Moultrie continued his march to Charleston, and Prevost took post before the lines.
We have for some time lost sight of Lieut. Col. Marion, and the reader may naturally inquire, was he at Tulifinny? He was not. With the second regiment under his command, he was in garrison at fort Moultrie.
Before Gen. Moultrie broke up his camp at Black Swamp, he wrote to Gen. Lincoln to give him advice of the movement of the enemy to Purysburgh, and from time to time of their progress to Charleston; but Lincoln marched up to Augusta, crossed over into Georgia, and moved down on the other side of the river for some time, very deliberately.6 However, from Jannett’s ferry, he writes a letter, of which the following is an extract: “If the enemy should give public evidence of their designs against Charleston, I think, with your force, as you are in possession of strong passes, you will be able to stop their progress and give us time to come up.” On the 10th of May, he again writes to Gen. Moultrie, “We are making, and shall continue to make, every exertion for the relief of Charleston. The baggage will be left. The inability of the men only, will put a period to our daily marches. Our men are full of spirits. Do not give up, or suffer the people to despair.”
But the governor and council did despair already, for a majority of them had finally offered to capitulate, and proposed a neutrality, during the war between Great Britain and South Carolina; and the question, whether the state should belong to Great Britain, or remain one of the United States, to be determined by the treaty of peace; from this offer, Gen. Gadsden and Mr. Thomas Ferguson dissented. To carry terms so disgraceful, to Prevost, Col. Laurens was pitched upon; but he indignantly refused to be the bearer. Cols. M`Intosh and Roger Smith were then persuaded to go with a flag.
The British commander appointed Col. Prevost, as commissioner to receive them; and he delivered a message from the general, “that he had nothing to do with the governor, that his business was with Gen. Moultrie; and as the garrison was in arms, they must surrender prisoners of war.” At this answer, the governor and council looked blank; and some were for submitting even to this degrading proposal: but Moultrie cut the conference short, by declaring, “that as it was left to him, he would fight to the last extremity.” Laurens, who was present, and sitting, bounded to his feet at the expression, raised his hands, and thanked his God! Thus it was only by a mistake of Prevost, as to the high powers of the civil authority, that the town, and the state of South Carolina, were then saved. What renders this offer the more astonishing, was, that the garrison, 3180 strong, were in good spirits, and an army under Lincoln, was marching to their assistance, on the rear of the enemy; who were not much stronger than the besieged, being computed at 3680 men.7
Early the next morning, Prevost decamped, and retreated to John’s and James Islands. (May 13th.) There was great rejoicing in the town; but the consequence to which it had arrived, by repelling two attempts of the enemy, only brought against it a greater armament, and in the end, sunk it into deeper distress.
An attack upon the British at Stono ferry, was now planned by Gen. Lincoln. Gen. Moultrie, was to throw over on James Island, all the troops which could be spared from the town, and make a feint on that side, or attack, if a favourable opportunity offered; while the principal effort was to be made by Lincoln, at Stono. He made the attack before Moultrie could cooperate, (June 20) and the enemy remaining in their lines, and being reinforced, obliged him to retreat. In this affair a few men were killed, and Col. Roberts, of the artillery, mortally wounded. His loss was greatly and justly lamented. William Richardson Davie, lately deceased, and afterwards so much celebrated as Gen. Davie, was among the wounded. Prevost, soon after this, retreated along the chain of islands on the coast, until he reached Port Royal and Savannah.
During the time Prevost lay before the lines of Charleston, Maj. Benjamin Huger, an active officer, a wise statesman, and a virtuous citizen, was unfortunately killed. What rendered his fate the more melancholy, was, that the act was done by the mistake of his own countrymen. It was at this time also, that Gen. Count Pulaski, a Polander, began to distinguish himself as a partisan. His address in single combat, was greatly celebrated. Col. Kowatch, under his command, was killed before the lines, and shamefully mutilated by the British.
Of the campaign of 1779, it was not the intention of the author to give a minute detail; but only to sketch out those feelings, and that line of conduct, in the cabinet and field, which, followed up in the succeeding year, brought ruin and disgrace upon the country.
1This is in error — The Marion family moved to Winyaw when Francis was six or seven years old. Francis was probably born either at St. John’s Parish, Berkeley, or St. James’s Parish, Goose Creek; the respective homes of his father’s and mother’s families. 1732 is probably correct as the year of Francis’s birth, but is not absolutely certain. Despite beginning with this error, the author’s remoteness from this event is not continued with the events mentioned later in the book, to which he was a witness. Those remarks should be given their proper weight. — A. L., 1997.