Sunday, June 23, 2024

ARP316 Skirmishing Around Charleston

Last week, we saw the British leave Savannah, Georgia in July 1782, thus ending any British presence in that state.  The war seemed to be wrapping up, as peace negotiations continued in Europe. The British southern army under General Alexander Leslie, however, remained in Charleston, South Carolina.  The Continental Army under General Nathanael Greene remained there to confront them.

We last looked in on South Carolina in Episode 304 Episode 304.  The British Army was bottled up in Charleston.  The patriot legislature met in Jacksonborough in early 1782, beginning to make decisions for how to restore civilian rule to the state.

Strawberry Ferry

While it appeared that major combat operations in South Carolina were at an end, both armies continued to probe the enemy lines for weaknesses and in search of forage.  Soldiers on both sides continued to fight and die in small skirmishes.

John Laurens

In February 1782, militia General Francis Marion had left his command to take his seat in the Jacksonborough Assembly.  His second in command, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Horry took command of Marion's brigade.

After receiving reports of weaknesses in the enemy lines, Loyalist Colonel Benjamin ThompsonBenjamin Thompson assembled a force in Charleston to raid the patriot militia.  Thompson came from Massachusetts, a patriot mob had chased him from his home in 1774.  He took a commission under General Gage and later formed the King’s American Dragoons.  In 1782, Thompson and his dragoons remained part of the British defenses at Charleston.

On February 19, Thompson led his dragoons, along with a company of British regulars infantry.  According to some accounts, Thomson was in search of deserters who had taken up the patriot offer of amnesty and were now serving with the enemy.  Thompsons’ brigade moved in force - several hundred men, in three columns.  They rode north of the city, along the Cooper River.  Near Strawberry Ferry, they captured an American lieutenant and six soldiers, as well as a sizable herd of cattle.

Before the militia could react to the raid in force, the loyalists withdrew back to their lines.  Five days later, however, the militia struck back, attacking Thomson’s loyalists near Wambaw Bridge, just outside of Charleston.  The patriots charged the bridge, which collapsed under their weight.  Many of the men fell into the river, along with their horses.  Several drowned.  The patriot militia reported 10 killed and 8 wounded, while the British reported only one wounded.

Around this same time, another force under militia Colonel Edward Barnwell attempted to confront a British foraging party south of Charleston that was collecting rice.  As the patriot militia rode near the Savannah River, loyalist militia under Major Andrew DeveauxAndrew Deveaux attacked them, killing six and capturing five.  Major Deveaux then took three small ships which he used to seize and hold the town of Beaufort, near the Georgia border, for about three weeks.  Finally, patriot militia drove them away.

Some of the fighting was more just violence by men who hated each other by this time, rather than anything resembling warfare. In March, a patriot militia captain named Johnson who had been captured by the British and was home on parole, was out hunting with a friend. The men came across Loyalist Colonel John Elrod and two other loyalist soldiers who had evacuated Wilmington and were also returning home.  Elrod took issue with the fact that Johnson was out hunting with his rifle.  The terms of his parole forbade him from carrying a gun.

The dispute turned ugly when the loyalists attacked and killed Johnson.  They also attempted to kill Johnson’s friend. He managed, however, to knock away the rifle aimed at him, causing it to miss its target.  The man then fled the scene, managing to get to a neighbor and alert them of the murder. 

The three loyalists, having left a witness alive, also fled, fearing the local patriot militia would come for them.  Local patriot militia Major Thomas Dugan raised a posse, which found Elrod and one of the other loyalists at Elrod’s home, asleep at night.  The other loyalist refused to admit he was part of the murder.  Another militia officer then bashed his head against the fireplace until the loyalist confessed.

The militia then held a quick court martial.  At dawn they rode both prisoners about a half a mile from the house, tied them to trees and shot them.

Fighting For Food

While skirmishing like this continued throughout South Carolina, the real enemy for the army, once again, was resources.  General Greene wrote repeatedly that he did not have enough food to feed his men. When he did have food, it was often so rancid that it was not fit for human consumption.  Eating poor food or too little food contributed to the disease and deaths that soldiers faced throughout the spring and summer of 1782.  Neither the Continental Congress, nor the State of South Carolina, nor anyone else for that matter, seemed willing to assist the army.

In April, General Greene wrote to one of his officers that he men had been without even rice for three days and that their hunger was putting them in a “mutinous mood.”  It certainly seems understandable that not being fed as you continued to fight for your country might make you disagreeable.  

Food was not the only problem. Clothing also reached crisis proportions.  When Captain Walter FinneyWalter Finney arrived at the main Continental Camp in April, he noted that the troops were “badly fed and wretchedly cloathed”.  He noted that about one-third of the men were completely naked, having only a hat.  They had tied blankets around their naked bodies  to defend against the weather and “preserve…decency”.

General Greene used his personal credit to contract with a local vendor, John Banks & Company to provide £30,000 worth of clothing for his soldiers.  The company ended up going bankrupt before providing what it promised and Greene was left on the hook to repay the debt to the company’s creditors.

These shortages resulted in grumblings that could easily have turned into another mutiny.  The Pennsylvania line, which had famously mutinied a year earlier, was at this point the largest force under Greene’s command.  In March Greene ordered a Maryland officer to select a force of officers and men for a raid on the enemy.  When the officer selected units from the Pennsylvania line to serve under him for the raid, the Pennsylvanians balked at the orders and protested that it was an infringement of their rights to have a Maryland officer given the authority to choose to send them into battle.  Greene’s response was that they were all in the Continental Army and that the army was not a civilian organization where you get to decide which superior officers can give you orders.  The soldiers grumbled but complied.

Gosnell Trial

Around this same time, the British sent pamphlets into the American camps noting that deserters would be fed, clothed and given money that their own army was denying them.  Several men from the Pennsylvania line took up the British on their offer and deserted.  Going without food, clothing, or pay from an ungrateful country had become too much for some of the men.  Greene offered reward money for anyone who provided information on those spreading incitements to mutiny.

A camp follower turned in Sergeant George Gosnell of the Pennsylvania Line.  Gosnell had come to America as a British regular.  He had deserted and joined the Continentals while the Pennsylvania line was still up north.  He had been identified as one of the leaders of the mutiny of the Pennsylvania line a year earlier in New Jersey.

Apparently Sergeant Gosnell continued to grip and was accused of encouraging another mutiny among the Pennsylvania line.  The mutiny in 1781 had been settled rather peacefully.  Greene, however, was not willing to let another mutiny take place again.  Gosnell had to be made an example.

Greene ordered Gosnell put under arrest and to be held for trial by another part of the army.  The following day, an assembled court martial tried Gosnell, found him guilty and sentenced him to death.  Greene approved the execution for the following day, and ordered that 100 men from each brigade be turned out to witness the execution.

Several others who were suspected of mutinous talk were also investigated. Richard Peters of the Maryland line, as well as four more soldiers from the Pennsylvania line, all British deserters, were suspected of fomenting mutiny, but were simply dismissed from service and forced to leave the state.

Greene later wrote to President John Hanson that hanging Gosnell made clear to the rest of the army not to test him, but that banishing the others rather than executing them, would be better for overall morale.

Evacuation Rumors

 There were still a few desertions following the execution. But in May rumors began to arrive that the British were planning to evacuate the south.  These seemed to put a stop to soldiers thinking about going over to the enemy.

The rumors, however, also raised a concern for Greene that Congress would be even less inclined to provide the promised food, clothing, and supplies that his army desperately needed.  Greene was still concerned that the British might abandon Savannah in order to reinforce Charleston and go on the offensive once again.

On May 20, British General Leslie sent Captain Francis Skelly as a messenger to Greene’s camp with a copy of Parliament’s resolution of February 12, ending offensive operations in America.  Greene met with Captain Skelly, who also informed the general that the British Commander in Chief in North America, General Clinton had been recalled and that General Guy Carleton was the new commander.

At this time, even Leslie was not aware of orders from London to evacuate all British troops from Savannah, Charleston, and New York. But it seemed clear to all that Britain’s efforts were coming to an end.  To that end, Skelly passed along Leslie’s proposal to Greene that the two armies agree to a cease fire.

Greene balked at this idea for several reasons.  To start, he did not entirely trust the British.  They could just be trying to buy time until they received reinforcements.  Further, even if the British were being honest, any agreed cease fire might be seen as agreeing to a separate peace without the agreement of France.  This could just be a British effort to drive a wedge between France and America and to gain an advantage at the peace negotiations. 

The result was that Greene agreed to nothing. He passed along the proposal to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, along with his comments about how he would comply with whatever Congress wanted, but that he could not see  how they could agree to this without France’s approval.  Remember, when France first agreed to this alliance, the fear of French diplomats was that the colonies would come to terms with Britain, allowing Britain to turn its full and undivided wrath against France.  The Americans assured France this would not happen.  That is why Greene was so concerned about getting France’s approval for any cease fire.

Even after Savannah evacuated in July, Greene remained vigilant.  He was concerned that the thousands of enemy soldiers leaving Savannah would sail up to Charleston to provide for a new British offensive.  Greene remained on alert and even called for General Wayne’s small force in Georgia to join him in South Carolina as quickly as possible.

The result was continued attacks, primarily on foraging parties of both sides.  The Continentals would not stop fighting until the British left the state.

Sickness Rages

In early July, weeks before the British evacuated Savannah, Greene ordered his army to take a new position closer to Charleston.  The Continentals moved about seven miles to the south to the Ashley Hill plantation, which was only a few miles from the British lines at Charleston.  Greene reported that he selected the location closer to the enemy to put more pressure on them, but also because it was good high ground that was dry and would be healthy for the army.

On that second regard he was wrong.  Within three days in the new location soldiers began falling ill with terrible fevers.  Within two weeks more than half the army was incapacitated by illness.  Over the summer and fall hundreds of soldiers died.  General Greene and General Wayne both became bedridden.  

Malaria ravaged the army as mosquitoes spread the disease without mercy or pause throughout the camp.  Greene considered moving, but continuing rumors of an imminent British evacuation convinced him to keep his army in place.

General William Moultrie, who had been taken prisoner in 1780 when Charleston fell, had been exchanged and visited the army in September.  He noted that before he even reached the camp, the smell of all the dead bodies overwhelmed him.  Greene ordered that the army stop beating out a march at funerals since they had become so common and only contributed to the depression of those in their sick beds.

Combahee Ferry

Despite the devastating impact of malaria, the Continentals remained active in their efforts to defend against any actions by the British or loyalists in Charleston.  The key officer tasked with keeping tab on the British was Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens.  Greene had given Laurens command of the Continental Cavalry that Light Horse Harry Lee had led before he had returned to Virginia.  Laurens kept his horsemen camped between the main Continental lines and the British lines, where his cavalry could take on any British foraging parties or anyone else who tried to come out from behind the lines.  

The British had maintained a small galley with about 40 men on the Ashley River.  The British crew regularly conducted raids on plantations along the river, seeking plunder and intelligence.  Laurens organized a task force to attack the galley at night.  The Continentals managed to scuttle the ship and to take prisoner most of the crew.

Despite this success, Laurens was frustrated with his command.  With the enemy remaining quiet in Charleston, most of Laurens’ time was spent arguing with locals when his men commandeered food or other necessities.  

In June, Greene gave command of the light infantry to General Mordecai Gist, an officer from Maryland.  He gave command of the cavalry to Lieutenant Colonel George Baylor, from Virginia.  Laurens took a much more limited role in command only of Lee’s old legion.

Even among the legion, Laurens was not popular.  They saw the South Carolina officer put in command of them as a young kid with no cavalry experience.  His father, Henry Laurens had been President of the Continental Congress and was currently part of the diplomatic team in France negotiating peace.  As such, many of the men in the legion saw Laurens as getting the job based on politics and connections rather than military merit.

Laurens’ friend, Alexander Hamilton wrote to him suggesting he give up his field command and join Hamilton in Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress.  Laurens declined.  Despite his frustrations, he wanted to be a successful field commander.

Part of Laurens’ duty was to obtain intelligence on the enemy.  Having lived in Charleston for many years before the war, Laurens was well positioned to renew contacts with old friends still in the loyalist communities in Charleston.  Many of these loyalists were eager to receive pardons so that they could remain in South Carolina after the war, and were more than willing to provide Laurens with whatever intelligence they could.

In late August, Laurens learned that the British were planning a large foraging expedition with about five hundred men and more than a dozen ships.  General Greene ordered General Gist to attack the enemy foraging party.  Laurens had been laid up with malaria, but left his sick bed to participate in the fight.

Gist planned to move his Continentals into place at night.  The following morning, August 27, he would launch a surprise dawn attack on the foraging party.  Gist believed he could force the enemy to retreat back to their boards on the Combahee River.  He would then use a field howitzer to fire on the ships.

Gist ordered Laurens to take command of a 50 man force that was defending the howitzer.  Gist believed the British would launch a land assault on the howitzer as the only way to protect their ships.

That morning, Gist’s continentals stormed the field, only to find them empty.  The British had received a tip about the attack and had boarded their ships around midnight and sailed away.  Gist realized that if the enemy knew about the attack, they probably also knew about the howitzer that had been set up down river.  He sent a messenger to warn Laurens and followed quickly behind with about 150 soldiers.

It was already too late.  The British had deployed a force to ambush Laurens’ detachment as they moved into position earlier that night.  Laurens found himself outnumbered three to one.  With few options, Laurens led a bayonet charge at the enemy, hoping the attack would surprise them and force a panic.  Instead, the experienced enemy fired a volley into the attacking Continentals, killing or injuring many of the attackers, and forcing the rest to flee into the night.

When Gist’s relief force arrived, he only found the retreating British boarding their ships with the captured howitzer.  Gist’s men then looked over the battlefield for casualties.  Among the dead was Colonel Laurens, shot through the heart and killed instantly.

Skirmishing continued around Charleston as both sides waited for an end to the war that never seemed to come.

Next week, we head over to Paris to look in on the negotiations and try to figure out why the end never seemed to come. 

- - -

Next Episode 317 Peace Commissioners

Previous Episode 315 Evacuation of Savannah

 Contact me via email at

 Follow the podcast on Twitter @AmRevPodcast

 Join the Facebook group, American Revolution Podcast 

 Join American Revolution Podcast on Quora 
Discuss the AmRev Podcast on Reddit

American Revolution Podcast Merch!

T-shirts, hoodies, mugs, pillows, totes, notebooks, wall art, and more.  Get your favorite American Revolution logo today.  Help support this podcast.

American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Make a one time donation through my PayPal account. You may also donate via Venmo (@Michael-Troy-20) or Zelle (send to

Click here to see my Patreon Page
You can support the American Revolution Podcast as a Patreon subscriber.  This is an option making monthly pledges.  Patreon support will give you access to Podcast extras and help make the podcast a sustainable project.

An alternative to Patreon is SubscribeStar.  For anyone who has problems with Patreon, you can get the same benefits by subscribing at SubscribeStar.

Help Support this podcast on ""

Visit the American Revolution Podcast Bookshop.  Support local bookstores and this podcast!

Signup for the AmRev Podcast Mail List

* indicates required

Further Reading


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

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. 

Wallace, David Duncan The life of Henry Laurens, with a sketch of the life of Lieutenant-Colonel John Laurens, New York G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1915.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Fleming, Thomas The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown, Harper Collins, 2007.  

Golway, Terry Washington's General: Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution, H. Holt, 2006 (borrow on 

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. 

Southern, Ed Voices of the American Revolution in the Carolinas , Blair, 2009. 

Unger, Harlow Giles The Last Man To Die in the American Revolution: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Laurens, Independently Published, 2023.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

No comments:

Post a Comment