Sunday, October 31, 2021

ARP223 Stono Ferry

We last left the southern theater in Episode 220 when the British Army reached the gates of Charleston, SC and had nearly bluffed the Americans into surrendering.   The British commander at Savannah, Gen. Augustine Prevost had only sent the army into South Carolina as a feint to get the Continentals led by Benjamin Lincoln, to pull back out of Georgia, and to collect some forage.  But the failure of the Americans to mount a united defense, had led the British all the way to Charleston.  Once there, they were outnumbered and lacked the necessary artillery to reduce the city walls.  As a result, they had no choice but to withdraw before General Lincoln could arrive.

British Withdrawal From Charleston

General Prevost had to abandon the short-lived siege of Charleston in May 1779, but did not return to Savannah right away.  Instead, the British moved to a defensive position on two coastal islands John’s Island and James Island in the Atlantic Ocean, just a few miles from Charleston.  From there, the British began moving soldiers along a series of coastal islands back toward the main garrison at Savannah.  

Death of Col. Owen Roberts
By avoiding the mainland, the British prevented the main Continental Army under Benjamin Lincoln from surrounding them and forcing a surrender.  The Americans did not have sufficient ship transports to make use of their numerical advantage against the islands.

The British spent much of the next month transporting captured food, mostly rice and beef, back to Savannah to replenish supplies for the garrison.  After all, that had been the main purpose of the foraging expedition that had ended up threatened Charleston.  

General Prevost wrote to Secretary of State George Germain in London about his foray into South Carolina and how they had almost captured Charleston but for the lack of troops.  Prevost’s main concern was that he would never be able to hold territory in South Carolina unless he received reinforcements.  

The ministry had counted on raising several battalions of loyalists in the Georgia and South Carolina backcountry.  Led by a few regiments of British regulars, this loyalist army would hold Georgia, and provide the numbers needed to recapture South Carolina.

General Prevost reported that attempts to recruit loyalists in Georgia had been a failure.  During the brief British occupation of Augusta, they had sent out the word for loyalists to rally to the King’s standard.  They had managed to recruit only about 400 men, only 300 of which actually showed up for duty.  After the Continentals recaptured Augusta, any loyalists who might have been considering enlistment had reason to fear.  They saw the British were not committed to holding territory.  If they enlisted in a loyalist regiment, and then the British left, they could be executed as traitors.  At the very least, they could be imprisoned or expelled from the state and have their property confiscated.  Few men were willing to rely on the chances that the British would remain and would prevail.

Similarly, London had counted on more support from the local Indian tribes. Creek and Seminole warriors had been heavily lobbied by British agents.  London had bestowed gifts and made promises of land to tribes that assisted in retaking territory from the rebels.  Very few warriors turned out.  They had been burned so many times by going to war with the colonists, only to be forced to cede even more land and move further west.  Like the loyalists, native tribes had no faith that the regular army was committed to holding the southern colonies.  They were not ready to be used as pawns and then sold out when the British found it convenient to do so.  As a result, only a little more than 100 warriors ever turned out, and nearly half of those went home after the foraging expedition in South Carolina ended.

Despite the lack of recruits, Secretary of State Germain, back in London, took the news that Charleston had almost been taken with so few troops as good news.  To him, it indicated that South Carolinians were not prepared to defend their state and that a slightly larger force could probably take Charleston very soon.  Instead of sending reinforcements, Germain told Prevost what he told all the generals in America who all pleaded for reinforcements.  They would have to make do with what they had, and what they had should be more than enough.

One group that did turn out for the British was one that they did not particularly want.  Around 3000 slaves took advantage of the British presence to escape their plantations and fall in with the British Army.  In a few cases, the escaped slaves provided valuable intelligence about the area, or where their masters had hidden valuables.  Some volunteered to serve as scouts for the army.

The British, however, were not looking to emancipate slaves or recruit slaves into a loyalist army.  They saw the slaves as an annoyance, more mouths to feed, that did not provide much to the effort.  Lieutenant Colonel Mark Prevost, who was the second in command to his older brother General Prevost, reported that the army treated the escaped slaves roughly in an attempt to discourage them from following the army.  Most of the slaves remained anyway, knowing that their fate would be far worse if they were recaptured by their former masters. 

For almost all the slaves, there was no good outcome.  Many hundreds huddled together in camps on islands near the British force.  Hundreds of them died as diseases spread through the camps.  The British did end up transporting many of the escapees back to Georgia. But they had no intention of setting them free.  The slaves were mostly sold to loyalist masters in Georgia.  Others were shipped to the West Indies to work on island plantations.

If the British had hoped to encourage South Carolina loyalists to turn out for the British cause, their actions did not encourage it.  The few native warriors who did join with the British were blamed for their cruel and barbaric behavior against plantations.  The regular soldiers themselves, also plundered any locals they encountered, friend and foe alike.  Stories abounded of British soldiers looting valuables from homes, even forcing ladies to turn over their wedding rings.  Stories of rapes also spread terror among the locals.

Although the British officers occasionally punished plunderers or rapists with lashings, it seemed to do little to deter the practice.  Locals saw the British army as threatening plunderers, not liberators.  

Lincoln Tries to Resign

British plundering throughout most of the state, other than the coastal islands, had been halted by the return of the Continental Army under General Benjamin Lincoln.  The Continental move into Georgia had opened up the British opportunity in South Carolina, and Lincoln’s failure to move back into South Carolina had given the British access to Charleston.

Benjamin Lincoln

South Carolina’s political leaders had savaged Lincoln for his failure to block the British incursion in the first place.  Added to his problems was the fact that most of his militia and state forces would see their enlistments expire in July or August. Most of these men were from Virginia or North Carolina and were eager to return home.  Lincoln faced the all too common threat that his army would evaporate before they could subdue the enemy.

Even before the incursion into South Carolina, Lincoln had written to Congress, asking to be relieved of command.  The New England general found the southern climate bad for his health and the level of local support beyond frustrating.  

Lincoln finally received permission from Congress to leave his command and return north.  He informed South Carolina Governor John Rutledge of his decision to resign and that General William Moultrie would assume command.  In his letter to Moultrie, Lincoln noted all of the “unkind declarations” made about him from Charleston and that he had clearly lost the confidence of the people.  The general figured that since no one seemed to respect his leadership, the best thing he could do was step away and let another leader try his chances.

Lincoln was shocked when both Governor Rutledge and General Moultrie urged him to stay.  Both men believed that the commander’s departure would crush the army’s morale.  Lincoln also learned that the French fleet under Admiral d’Estaing with over 4000 soldiers planned to provide support to South Carolina around the end of the summer.  With the support of Rutledge and Moultrie, and word of French reinforcements, Lincoln chose to remain in command.

Stono Ferry

In late May, Lincoln moved his army to within a half mile of the British camp on Johns Island.  Only the Stono River separated the island from the mainland.  The British had actually posted the bulk of their troops on the mainland side of the river.  The island side was too swampy, and the mainland side had made it easier to conduct foraging raids.  The British position, however, meant that not only was the river not an effective defensive barrier, it also would have made any British retreat in the face of an enemy attack nearly impossible. Prevost had dug in entrenchments so that the British forces were prepared to repel any assault.  But he really had not plan for retreat if the assault succeeded.

On May 24, American advance guard clashed with a small group of British defenders still on James Island.  The Americans managed to drive the British to the west, onto Johns Island.   From there, the Americans crossed over to James Island where they could reach the British rear.

British position at Stono Ferry
By May 30, the Americans were in position.  General Pulaski began skirmishing with the British to test their defenses.  The British force had a total of about 2200 men, with the bulk of them at the defenses at Stono Ferry.  Although Lincoln had more soldiers overall, he did not have that many in position and available to assault the British defenses.

Lincoln concluded the British as too well entrenched.  He did not trust his relatively untested army of mostly militia to charge into those entrenchments and eject the British defenders.  The British had set up three lines of redoubts protected by artillery, and erected abatis to discourage any attack.  Lincoln ordered Pulaski to pull back.  Instead the two armies simply stared at each other for about two weeks.  

General Prevost had never intended to remain in South Carolina.  He was looking for the easiest and safest way to return to Savannah.  The general scouted the islands to his south, mapping out the best path back to Georgia.  He left his brother, Colonel Mark Prevost, in command of the rearguard at Stono Ferry, which constituted the bulk of the British forces.

On June 16, General Prevost ordered his brother to take about half of the force at Stono Ferry, using boats they had captured, moved down the Stono River toward Savannah.  The younger Prevost complied, leaving a smaller rearguard of about 800 men at Stono Ferry to cover the withdrawal.  That rearguard fell to the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Maitland.

The Prevost brothers had left Colonel Maitland in a tricky situation.  The defenders were facing Americans on both sides, with militia forces in front of them on the mainland, and Continentals on Johns Island behind them.  Maitland had his own regiment, the 71st, with about 350 British regulars.  He also had a Hessian regiment with another 200 men, as well as around 250 local loyalists who had marched with the British army from Savannah into South Carolina.  He had only one boat, capable of transporting about twenty men at a time.

On the evening of June 19, a spy informed General Lincoln that the British were withdrawing from their position at Stono Ferry, and that only around 600 men remained.  With this intelligence, Lincoln held a council of war, where the consensus was to attack before the remainder of the enemy army could escape.

That same night, the Americans assembled the bulk of their 3000 man combined force and moved into position to attack the British rearguard still at Stono Ferry.  By the morning of June 20th, Lincoln had his army in position.  General Isaac Huger commanded the American left, which included several brigades of Continentals.  General Jethro Sumner, a veteran of the Philadelphia Campaign, who had only received his Continental commission as brigadier a few months earlier, commanded the right wing.  His command consisted mostly of the Carolina militia and state regulars, who had finally accepted the idea of operating under Continental command.  In reserve, Lincoln held the Virginia militia under Colonel David Mason.  Supporting all of them was a single artillery regiment with eight field guns.

The Americans would have to cross about a half mile of open field, then push their way through abatis before assaulting the three British redoubts.  The British also had six field guns to deter the attack.

Lincoln had planned for the militia wing to strike first.  He hoped the British defenders would move to reinforce that side. Then, the Continentals would hit the weakened flank.  But the militia got tangled in the underbrush and the Continentals engaged with the British pickets first.  Colonel Maitland heard the attack and assumed it was another American probe against his defenses.  He sent out two companies of regulars to dispatch the attackers.  Those companies soon realized they were facing more than a probe.  About half of them were killed or wounded as the remainder fled back to their defensive positions.

Lincoln had ordered his troops to storm the enemy position and use the bayonet.  But about sixty yards out, the American advance faltered. The Americans paused to fire and would not advance.  Since the Americans were in an open field and the British were behind earthworks, the American position was untenable.  Lincoln personally rode into the front line and encouraged the men forward, but they could not be persuaded to charge into the British redoubts.  

Lincoln then brought up artillery to blast the redoubts, but British counter fire from artillery took their attention.  The two artillery batteries fired on each other from about only sixty yards, for about a half hour, leading to terrible casualties on both sides.  At one point the British artillery was nearly out of ammunition.  Captain James Moncrief then led a charge against the American canon, seized its ammunition, and brought it back into the British lines to resupply his artillery.

At the same time, the militia on the American right managed to untangle themselves and assault the enemy lines.  Maitland had deployed his Hessians on his far left flank.  That regiment took the bulk of the American Assault.  The South Carolina militia charged the Hessian redoubt, even though most of the attackers did not have bayonets.  They managed to force the Hessians to abandon the redoubt and run away.  Maitland, seeing this, sent in his reserves to retake the Hessian redoubt and push back the Americans.

Lincoln, still focused on pushing the American left, did not realize that the American right had overrun a redoubt.  If he had, he might have pushed the right to renew its attack and overrun forces that were now weakened.  Instead, Lincoln saw his forces being decimated and ordered a withdrawal.

As the Americans began to pull back. The British moved out of their defenses to pursue the retreating Americans.  Seeing this, Lincoln sent in his reserve force of Virginia militia. The sight of American reinforcements halted the British counter attack, as the men retreated back to their defensive redoubts.

The Americans reported losses of 34 killed 112 wounded, and 9 missing.  The British reported 26 killed, 103 wounded, and 1 missing.  The most prominent American killed was Colonel Owen Roberts, who commanded the artillery.  One relatively inconsequential death was that of sixteen year old militia private Hugh Jackson, who succumbed to heat exhaustion several days after the battle.  Hugh’s younger brother, 13 year old Andrew Jackson served as a messenger during the battle and survived.  His brother’s death, however, was one of several events that gave the future President a life-long hatred of the British.

On June 23, three days after the battle, the British pulled out of Stono Ferry and moved down the coast.  The British moved to Beaufort on Port Royal Island about 40 miles closer to Savannah. There, an 800 man force, again under the command of Colonel Maitland, maintained a launching point for the next invasion of South Carolina.  General Lincoln moved his Continentals to Sheldon, South Carolina, about fifteen miles north of the British position at Beaufort.

Gov. James Wright

Several weeks after the battle, in July, Royal Governor James Wright returned to Savannah, along with Lieutenant Governor John Graham and Chief Justice Anthony Stokes. The purpose of their return was to restore crown rule in Georgia.  

Gov. James Wright

Wright had come to Georgia as a teenager in 1730, two years before it formally received colonial status, when his father was appointed Chief Justice of the new colony.  Wright had served as governor since 1760 and had owned more than 25,000 acres and 500 slaves before the revolution had forced him out of the colony in 1776. 

For the next two and a half years, Wright had lobbied the ministry to retake Georgia, assuring them that most Georgians would rally and support crown rule.  On his return to Georgia, Wright attempted to recruit a political base that would support the King, but quickly understood what British military recruiters had already learned, that most Georgians were unwilling to commit to the royal government.  

Wright quickly changed his tune in letters to London, calling for more reinforcements of regulars to hold control of the state.  He refused to call for elections, fearing that he would get a legislature full of representatives who supported independence.  Instead, the civilian government hunkered down with the army in Savannah, controlling only a few miles around the city.  The American government still operated out of Augusta and controlled the remainder of the state.

So, even though the British military was winning battles, it simply did not have the overwhelming force that would get the populace to rally to their support.  Savannah remained yet another British outpost in hostile American territory.

- - -

Next Episode 224 St. Vincent & Granada 

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Further Reading


Bostick, Doug The Battle of Stono Ferry

Stono Ferry June 20, 1779:

Stono Ferry

Jethro Sumner:

Searcy, Martha Condray. “1779: The First Year of the British Occupation of Georgia.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 2, 1983, pp. 168–188. JSTOR,

Sterner, Eric “John Rutledge of South Carolina, 1779” Journal of the American Revolution, March 25, 2021,

“The Battle of Stono.” The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, vol. 5, no. 2, 1904, pp. 90–94. JSTOR,

Lipscomb, Terry W., and George Fenwick Jones. “A Hessian Map of the Stono Battlefield.” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 82, no. 4, 1981, pp. 371–381. JSTOR,

Deaton, Stan James Wright (1716-1785)

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Barnwell, Robert Woodward Loyalism in South Carolina, 1765-1785, Duke Univ. Thesis, 1941. 

Coleman, Kenneth Governor James Wright in Georgia, 1760-1782, ERIC, 1975. 

Fortescue, J.W. A History Of The British Army, London: Macmillan And Co, Ltd, 1911. 

Harden, William “Sir James Wright: Governor of Georgia by Royal Commission, 1760-1782The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol 2, March 1, 1918. 

Peck, John Mason Lives of Daniel Boone and Benjamin Lincoln, Boston: C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1847. 

Jones, Charles C. The History of Georgia Vol. 2, Boston: Houghton & Mifflin Co. 1883: 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Ferling, John Winning Independence, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.

Hall, Leslie, Land and Allegiance in Revolutionary Georgia, Univ. of Ga Press, 2001.  

Hilborn, Nat Battleground of Freedom: South Carolina in the Revolution, Sandlapper Press, 1970. 

O’Kelley, Patrick Nothing but Blood and Slaughter: Military Operations and Order of Battle of the Revolutionary War in the Carolinas - Volume One 1771-1779, Booklocker, 2004. 

Mattern, David B. Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

Piecuch, Jim Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775-1782, Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2008. 

Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000. 

Wilson, David K. The Southern Strategy: Britain’s Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia 1775-1780, Univ. of S.C. Press, 2005. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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