Sunday, March 17, 2024

ARP303 John's Island

 Last week we covered the continued fighting in South Carolina following the surrender of the main British army in the south under General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia.  In South Carolina, General Nathanael Greene and the militia under General Francis Marion were pushing the British into an ever-shrinking circle around Charleston.  The new British commander in Charleston, General Alexander Leslie, was consolidating his forces as best he could to hold onto whatever parts of the state that he could.

Both sides remained concerned that some peace settlement might rely on what territories armies held at the time, meaning that forcing the British out of Charleston entirely would help to ensure recognition of South Carolina’s independence.

Return of Sumter & Laurens

With word of the victory at Yorktown, General Thomas Sumter returned to Greene’s camp.  Recall that back in Episode 292, General Sumter had tried to disband his militia army and personally traveled back to North Carolina.  Part of this was Sumter’s anger at orders from Greene and Governor Rutledge to stop the looting of loyalist properties, which Sumter relied on to pay his army.  Part of this was capturing slaves that belonged to loyalists to pay his soldiers for continued service.  

The general had also ticked off Marion and his militia as well as Greene for his poor leadership at Quinby’s Bridge. So with most people unhappy with him, as he was with them, Sumter tried to disband his army and go home, at least for a short timeout.

Thomas Sumter
After Sumter’s departure, General Greene and Governor Rutledge had put Francis Marion in charge of most of the militia.  Sumter, who was more senior to Marion, could reasonably reclaim command of the militia, but with everyone annoyed at him, no one else wanted that to happen.  Greene avoided a major political fight by giving Sumter and Marion separate commands.  Greene was moving Marion’s men to the area around Charleston, especially to the south, where they wanted to prevent any British overland travel between Charleston and Savannah, as well as making it more difficult for the British to forage in those areas.  

Greene tasked Sumter with keeping a lid on the Tory activity around Orangeburg, to the northwest of Charleston.  There was still a large German speaking loyalist population there that required continued monitoring so that they did not regroup and try to cause more problems. This was also during this time in late November that William “Bloody Bill” Cunningham was wreaking havoc in the area. Sumter was tasked with taking on that as well, working with General Andrew Pickens to take out Cunningham and his loyalists.

The other key officer returning to South Carolina in late 1781 was Colonel John Laurens.  Since he was a Continental officer, he came under the direct command of General Greene.  But Laurens was more than just a colonel.  He was the son of the former president of the Continental Congress, Henry Laurens - who headed one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in South Carolina.  Colonel Laurens had recently completed a diplomatic mission to France to obtain more French assistance for the Continental Army.  Colonel Laurens had been General Washington’s aide for many years, and was close friends with the Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton.  His political connections made him far more important than his rank.

Laurens had returned from France in time to rejoin the Continental army for the Yorktown Campaign.  He personally led a regiment in the final assault on Redoubt #10 at Yorktown and was then part of the negotiating team that accepted Cornwallis’ surrender.  Cornwallis, in addition to his military title, held the position as constable of the Tower of London - where Laurens’ father was currently a prisoner.  So Laurens had effectively captured his father’s jailer.  

Following the surrender at Yorktown, tried to get approval to exchange Cornwallis for his father. That was still undecided when Washington left Yorktown for Philadelphia, and Laurens finally returned to South Carolina. After his arrival in early December, Laurens began to push for political changes, in addition to his military service.

Garden’s Plantation

Laurens began working with Marion’s efforts south of Charleston.  He combined forces with Light Horse Harry Lee’s legion.  Colonel Lee had also just recently returned, after a trip to Virginia that lasted about two months.  Greene had sent Lee back to Virginia in September, hoping that Lee could persuade Washington to send more reinforcements to South Carolina.  That mission was largely unsuccessful, but it did allow Lee to observe the end of the Yorktown campaign, and allowed him to be present at the Cornwallis’ surrender.  His legion set up camp at McQueens Plantation, just west of Charleston, with an eye toward taking John’s Island, just south of the city.

John Laurens

He was close enough to Charleston that he could see what was happening there. He also had several conflicts with loyalist militia. On December 19th, a company of Lee’s soldiers under the command of Captain James Armstrong attacked a loyalist company under the command of Captain Ludwig Kienen, killing several and taking the rest prisoner, including Captain Kienen.

The following day, Captain Armstrong was waiting to meet a spy at the Garden’s Plantation when he spotted another company of loyalists.  This time, the enemy was a company of New York provincials commanded by Major John Coffin.  

A native of Boston, Coffin was a loyalist who joined the British army in time to fight at Bunker Hill.  By 1777, he had risen to major, commanding loyalist volunteers from New York.  Coffin and his New York volunteers had been deployed south, where they saw considerable action in South Carolina and Georgia.

Commanders in Charleston had tasked Coffin with tracking down the rebels who had captured Captain Kienen the day before.  When Coffin’s provincials saw the enemy, they withdrew.  Armstrong’s patriot militia gave chase.  

The loyalist withdrawal had been an effort to draw the enemy into an ambush, which was successful.  Captain Armstrong’s men quickly found themselves being attacked from all sides by a larger force.  Armstrong charged at the enemy, but they did not break.  Armstrong’s company was cut down, with the men killed or captured.  Armstrong’s horse fell and a loyalist soldier took him prisoner.  The loyalist had to fight off several of his own comrades to keep them from killing Armstrong.  The following day, the loyalists exchanged Armstrong for the return of Captain Kienen.

Slaughter Field & Daufuskie Island

As 1781 was coming to an end, the active skirmishing only continued. On December 23, a small militia company under the command of Captain Benjamin Oden was camped in a field northwest of Blackville, about a day’s march from Orangeburg.  A group of loyalists attacked in a pre-dawn raid, killing sixteen men and forcing the rest to scatter.  The dead and dying were left in the field for several days, giving it the name Slaughter Field.  

Another terrible story of attacks and revenge was unfolding further to the south.  Near the southern tip of South Carolina, a local patriot militia held Hilton Head Island.  Just to the south on Daufuskie Island, a loyalist regiment held sway.

In late December, a group of loyalists under the command of Captain Philip Martinangel crossed the water over to Hilton Head to ambush a patriot militia officer, Captain Ambrose Davant.  The loyalists caught Devant riding near his plantation and shot him.  The wounded patriot was able to escape and ride to a neighbor’s plantation.  His wound was mortal and he soon died, but not before telling friends that Martinagel’s loyalists had shot him.

Davant’s friend Captain John Leacraft, organized a retaliatory raid.  His patriots crossed over to Daufuskie Island in search of Martinangel.  They found him on Christmas night in bed.  According to one account, Martinangel was sleeping with his infant daughter next to him.  They slit his throat, killing him without waking his daughter.  The daughter awoke later from the feel of her father’s blood all over her.  Her screams alerted the servants.  

Incidents like these were happening all over South Carolina.  Neighbors continued to attack neighbors often simply out of revenge.  Loyalists were becoming increasingly desperate, while patriots were looking to end the violence of those who refused to accept the patriot victory.

Johns Island 

Greene’s main army was still trying to tighten the noose even further on the British in Charleston itself.  Greene knew that the local skirmishing throughout the state would only end once the British were forced to abandon Charleston entirely.

Greene was still pushing to get an army large enough to take on Charleston directly, but in the meantime, focused on harassing British troops at the edges.

With Greene’s support, Colonels Laurens and Lee targeted Johns Island for their next attack.  The island sat just south of Charleston.  British ships protected the island.  James Craig and the 82nd of Foot, which had recently evacuated Wilmington, had been assigned to protect the island.  Craig had just received a promotion to lieutenant colonel and commanded a brigade of about 500 regulars and loyalists.  The British used the island primarily to graze horses, as well as cattle needed to feed the garrison in Charleston.

The patriots did not have boats to cross over onto the island, but determined that there were a couple of times each month when the tide was low enough at night that they could cross over through waist high water to get to the island.  The attack would be especially risky since the tide was only low enough for a few hours. The troops would have to cross, conduct their raid, then retreat back to the mainland before the water rose too high.  Otherwise, they would find themselves trapped on the island.

The raiding force planned to cross on the night of December 28. The men got into position, but discovered there was another large British force on James Island.  If the patriots attacked John’s Island, these reinforcements would leave them outnumbered and potentially trapped on the island.  In the end, Lee and Laurens called off the attack.

They would have to wait another two weeks for the tides low enough at the right time of night to try again. On the night of January 12, 1782, they made their second attempt. This time, the main army under General Greene was camped nearby.  It could cause a diversion in case the British tried to send reinforcements to John’s Island.

Laurens sent the first division under Lee’s command across the shallows at about 1:00 AM on the 13th.  As they crossed silently, they could hear British soldiers on nearby gunboats calling out “all’s safe.”  Laurens was supposed to oversee a second column under James Hamilton across the cut, but Hamilton’s division was missing.  They finally showed up over an hour later, with Hamilton informing Laurens that their guide had abandoned them and they got lost.  At this point, the tide was already beginning to rise.  In a few hours it would be light.  Lee’s division would be trapped on the island with too few men to engage the enemy.  Laurens again called off the attack and recalled Lee’s division to the mainland.

After this attempt, the leadership decided that a land crossing dependent on the tide simply would not work.  They decided they would have to attack with boats. To do that, they would need to drive off the British gunboats protecting the island.  Greene brought up artillery to fire on the boats the following day.  This resulted in a back and forth artillery duel, but the British boats refused to withdraw.

Hearing the artillery fire and fearing a full assault on the island, Colonel Craig opted to evacuate the island.  His regulars and militia evacuated the island as the gunboats dueld with the Continentals.  The following day, after the army had abandoned the island, the British gunboats also withdrew.

On the 15th, Laurens led a small force of cavalry and infantry onto the island, confirming the British camp had been abandoned. They managed to capture a few stragglers and a few supplies, but the enemy was gone.  They did attack one British schooner loaded with most of the regimental supplies, but after a brief firefight, the schooner escaped.

Craig ended up moving his regulars to James Island within cannon shot of Charleston itself.  With John’s Island abandoned, but too risky to hold, the Continentals also withdrew, leaving the island a no man’s land.

Videau’s Bridge 

To the north of Charleston, Greene relied on local militia to keep the British in check.  General Marion spread out the militia in small groups to cover the area.  Back in Charleston, British General Leslie believed that the small and scattered groups of militia would be vulnerable to attack.  He deployed Major William Brereton, a British regular officer in command of provincial troops. 

Brereton had come from an Irish family that had moved to England in the 1500’s.  His ancestor and namesake had been a courtier to Henry VIII.  His family had a long military tradition.  His father and uncles had all been officers.  One of his older brothers had been killed while serving under General Braddock at the battle of the Monongahela.

William had purchased his first commission at the age of 17 in 1769.  By the time the Revolution began, he was a captain of a grenadier company.  He served in the Philadelphia Campaign and purchased a promotion to major in April of 1781.  He was a highly experienced officer, as were the men who served under him.

Brereton led a brigade which included his own regiment of regulars, as well as several smaller regiments of loyalist provincials, including the mounted NY Provincials under Major John Coffin.  In all, Brereton had a force of about 360 men.  HIs men crossed from Charleston onto Daniel’s Island to the north, searching for forage and any enemy that cared to take on their forces.

In response, Militia Colonel Richard Richardson, Jr. led a local militia to confront the enemy.  Richardson’s father had been a prominent patriot who served in the government and also as a militia general.  Richardson, Sr. had been captured at Charleston when the British invaded in 1780.  After getting very ill, he was released on parole but died at home a few weeks later.  You may recall in an earlier episode, I mentioned that Banastre Tarleton dug up Richardson’s body and desecrated it in an attempt to goad the patriots.

His son, Colonel Richard Richardson, Jr. had some experience, and was also working with a brigade of militia that had not fought together much as a unit.  When he learned of the enemy’s advance on Daniel Island, He called on General Marion to send reinforcements. Marion sent a regiment of South Carolina Dragoons to assist.  In total, Richardson’s militia force totaled about 400 men, a bit larger than the enemy he faced.

On January 3, the British were camped at the Brabant Plantation, the home of the Reverend Robert Smith.  Aware that rebel militia might be in the area, Major Brereton deployed a guard at nearby Videau’s Bridge, one of the main approaches to the plantation.

Richardson approached the bridge in an attempt to reconnoiter the enemy.  The British pickets spotted him and tried to apprehend him.  Richardson fled back to his army, with the loyalist provincials following closely behind.  Once he reached his own lines, he wheeled around his horse and ordered his men to charge.  The South Carolina Dragoons charged forward, forcing the provincials to withdraw back to Videau’s Bridge.

There, Major Coffin led a counter charge with his provincial cavalry.  Many of the patriot militia scattered and ran.  Some remained but were outnumbered and cut down.  As the patriot militia fled, the provincials pursued them, chasing the soldiers for about six miles in a running battle.  Afraid that they would be drawn too far away from their lines, the provincials gave up the chase and returned.

At the end of the day the Americans lost 9 killed, 6 wounded, and 15 missing.  The British reported 4 killed, 14 wounded, and 1 captured.  With the American militia scattered, the British continued their foraging.  

A week and a half later, the provincial militia under Major Coffin had ridden further inland, back to Dorchester, the site of another skirmish about six weeks earlier that I discussed last week.  Coffin’s horsemen managed to surprise a small patrol of Continental Dragoons under the command of Lieutenant John Kelly.  

Taken by surprise, Kelly surrendered along with seven of his men.  Coffin brought them back to Charleston as prisoners.  This is sometimes known as the second battle of Dorchester, although there did not seem to be much, if any, fighting on that day.

Lull in the fighting

The British did not remain in the field much longer.  They returned to Charleston.  Because they had lost so much grazing land, General Leslie ordered the destruction of 200 horses that they could no longer feed.  

Similarly, the patriots were also finding it difficult to feed horses.  Around this same time, South Carolina Governor Rutledge ordered the state troops and militia to send home their horses, as the state would no longer pay to feed them.  This led to many of the militia going home as well, since the men did not want to fight on foot.

With both sides running so low on supplies, the skirmishing seemed to slow down for the next few weeks.  This lull in fighting also coincided with the return of civil government to South Carolina.  In late 1781, the state had held new legislative elections.  The new legislature met in early 1782 to put in place new policies for the state.  

And I will discuss that more next week, as the legislature handles several important issues for the future of the state.

- - -

Next Episode 304 Jacksonborough Assembly

Previous Episode 302 Cloud's Creek Massacre

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Further Reading


Slaughter Field:

Revolutionary Story of Intrigue at Hilton Head Island, SC:

John Coffin:

William Brereton:

Baxley, Charles B. “‘An Enterprise upon Johns Island’: Nathanael Greene’s Winter Campaign and the Jacksonborough Assembly, 1781–1782.” Army History, no. 98, 2016, pp. 30–52. JSTOR,

Raid on John’s Island:

Battle of Videau's Bridge:

Dorchester 2:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Barnwell, Robert Woodward Loyalism in South Carolina, 1765-1785, Ph.D. Thesis, Duke University, 1941. 

Crow, Jeffrey (ed) The Southern Experience in the American Revolution, Univ. of NC Press, 1978.

Landrum, John Colonial and Revolutionary History of Upper South Carolina, Greenville, SC: Shannon & Co. 1897 

McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: The Macmillan Co. 1902.  

Ramsay, David The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina, from a British province to an independent state, 1749-1815, Vol. 2, Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785. 

Simms, William G. The Life of Francis Marion, New York, Derby, 1854. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Bass, Robert D. Gamecock: The Life And Campaigns of General Thomas Sumter, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961 (Read on 

Buchanan, John The Road to Charleston, Univ. of Va. Press, 2019. 

Massey, Gregory D. John Laurens and the American Revolution, Univ. of SC Press,  2000 (borrow on 

O’Kelley, Patrick Nothing But Blood and Slaughter: The Revolutionary War in the Carolinas, Vol 3, 1781, Booklocker, 2005. 

Oller, John The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, Da Capo Press, 2016. 

Pancake, John S. This Destructive war: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782, Univ. of Alabama Press, 1985 (borrow on

Weigley, Russell Frank The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782, Columbia: Univ of South Carolina Press, 1970 (borrow on 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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