The Patriots Launch a Misguided Attack on British Troops Retreating from an Aborted Raid on Charleston
After the British captured Savannah in December 1778, they were intent on expanding their grip across the South, which included seizing the valuable port city of Charleston. By the spring of 1779, American commander Major General Benjamin Lincoln moved his forces to Augusta to stage a second attack on Savannah and left Brigadier General William Moultrie and his militia behind in Purrysburg, South Carolina, to defend the area. With Lincoln away, British Brigadier General Augustine Prevost took a gamble and made a long play for Charleston. Prevost advanced to the gates of the city, provoked a firefight against Patriot troops on May 11–12, and demanded a surrender. However on the morning of May 13, Prevost and his army were gone.
Having intercepted a message from Lincoln to Moultrie overnight, Prevost learned that the Patriot commander was rushing back to Charleston from the south. Concerned that he would be trapped between two armies — Lincoln’s and Moultrie’s — outnumbered, and with no reasonable means of escape, he abandoned his plan to take Charleston and retreated south to John’s Island. On June 16, Prevost began to extract his army by boat from John’s Island back to Savannah. He left some 900 troops — the 71st Highlanders, his Hessian forces, and the Loyalists — on the mainland at Stono Ferry to cover the withdrawal. They were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Maitland.
June 20, 1779
Maitland’s soldiers were entrenched in a strong defensive position on the north bank of the river. Their fortifications, close to the manicured grounds before you, included three artillery redoubts — earthen forts — circled by an abatis — a barrier of sharpened logs. The garrison was also supported by the British war ship Thunder, anchored off John’s Island. Lincoln marched his Patriot force of 1,200 to this outpost and arrived here at dawn on June 20. Advancing through dense woods, the Patriots initially made steady gains toward the British defenses and inflicted significant casualties. Suddenly, Prevost’s troops came streaming over a bridge from John’s Island to reinforce Maitland. Seeing this force appear across the inlet prompted Lincoln, overpowered and low on ammunition, to retreat.
Though it was less than an hour long, Lincoln’s failed assault resulted in approximately 34 Patriots killed, 113 wounded, and 155 missing. Among the dead was teenager Hugh Jackson, older brother of future president Andrew Jackson, who died of heat stroke after the battle, and Colonel Owen Roberts, commander of the South Carolina 4th Continental Regiment. British casualties were reported to be 26 killed, 93 wounded, and one missing.