The Battle of Beaufort at Port Royal Island, South Carolina, 1779

February 3, 1779

The Battle of Beaufort took place on February 3, 1779, on Port Royal Island in South Carolina. American forces were able to stop a British advance and force them to leave the island.

William Moultrie, Portrait

General William Moultrie. Image Source: Wikipedia.

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Summary of the Battle of Beaufort

The Battle of Beaufort  — also known as the Battle of Port Royal Island — was a battle between the United States of America and Great Britain that took place on February 3, 1779, in and around Beaufort, South Carolina on Port Royal Island. After the British captured Savannah on December 29, 1778, they wanted to establish a base of operations on Port Royal Island, South Carolina. If they could do that, they would be able to stage an attack — by land and water — on Charleston. British General Augustine Prevost sent Major James Gardiner and 200 men to capture Fort Lyttleton on the island. General Benjamin Lincoln responded by sending General William Moultrie and a well-armed force of 300 men to meet Gardiner. On February 3, the two armies met just outside of Beaufort, South Carolina. After they exchanged heavy fire for 45 minutes, both sides started to run low on ammunition and decided to withdraw. However, when Moultrie learned Gardiner was retreating, he sent his cavalry in pursuit. The cavalry chased the British and captured a handful of the enemy, before turning back. The British evacuated and left the island — and the field of battle — to the Americans.

Quick Facts About the Battle of Beaufort

  • Date Started: The Battle of Beaufort was fought on Wednesday, February 3, 1779.
  • Date Ended: The battle ended on February 3, 1779.
  • Location: It was fought in Beaufort, South Carolina, on Port Royal Island.
  • Theater: The Battle of Beaufort was fought in the Southern Theater of the American Revolutionary War.
  • Campaign: The battle was part of the British Southern Campaign. 
  • Who Won: The United States won the Battle of Beaufort.
  • Fun Fact: The Battle of Beaufort is also known as the Battle of Port Royal Island, the Battle of Beaufort at Port Royal Island, and the Battle of Gray’s Hill.
Battle of Beaufort, Port Royal Island, 1779
This painting depicts William Moultrie commanding troops at the Battle of Beaufort. Image Source: Daniel Island Historical Society.

History of the Battle of Beaufort at Port Royal Island

After the British captured Savannah, Georgia on December 29, 1778, they had control of the Savannah River. The river runs along the border of Georgia and South Carolina and gave the British the ability to march into South Carolina or Georgia, as needed. 

American Forces Gather at Purrysburg

Meanwhile, American forces, under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln, gathered at Purrysburg, South Carolina. Lincoln was roughly 80-90 miles away from Charleston, which was under the control of American Patriot forces. As he moved through the south, he would establish a critical supply line between his army and Charleston.

Benjamin Lincoln. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

British Plans to Take Control of Port Royal Island

British General Augustine Prevost, who was in command in Savannah, decided to send a small force to Port Royal Island for two reasons. The first was to disrupt Lincoln’s supply line and cut him off from Charleston. The second was to establish a base of operations on Port Royal Island, South Carolina.

Fort Lyttleton on Port Royal Island

The only American defense on the island was Fort Lyttleton, which had a small garrison of around 20 men, including Continental regulars and Beaufort Militia. Captain John DeTreville was in command of the fort.

Prevost organized a small force of around 200 men, under the command of Major James Gardiner, to capture Fort Lyttleton and take control of Port Royal Island. Gardiner’s men included Light Infantry from the 16th Regiment of Foot and two regiments from the 60th Regiment of Foot. Prevost also expected that Gardiner would receive additional support from Loyalists in the area.

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Gardiner and his men were transported from Savannah to Hilton Head Island with a flotilla of small ships. They took the HMS Vigilant with them, to serve as a “floating battery.” The Vigilant was a damaged ship that was not seaworthy. However, the British used it by towing it into position and using its bombard American targets.

American and British Forces Move to Port Royal Island

Gardiner landed some of his men at Hilton Head Island on February 1. He met resistance from the Beaufort Militia under the command of Captain James Doharty. The Americans were forced to fall back and the Britsh proceeded to set fire to houses Doharty and his men had occupied. Afterward, the British returned to their ship. The other ships sailed up the Broad River and anchored off of Port Royal Island, near the plantation owned by General Stephen Bull.

Gardiner expected some of the plantation owners on the island, including General Stephen Bull, would be hostile to the British. He sent a scouting party out to review the situation and harass the plantations around Beaufort. The contingent was led by Captain Patrick Murray. While Murray and his men moved on to the island, the British ships bombarded the plantations. Murray and his men set fire to buildings, and the first plantation they attacked was owned by Thomas Heyward Jr. — who signed the Declaration of Independence. There was little resistance to Murray and his men until they returned to their ships and there was a brief skirmish with Doharty’s militia.

That same day, Lincoln sent General William Moultrie to cross the Broad River on the northern end and intercept Gardiner. Moultrie had around 300 men — mostly South Carolina Militia, regulars from the Continental Army, and two companies of artillery from Charleston. The artillery units were under the command of Edward Rutledge and Heyward Jr. 

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Edward Rutledge, Founding Father
Edward Rutledge. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

British Attacks and Fort Lyttleton Abandoned

On the morning of February 2, Gardiner landed a scouting party at a plantation owned by a Loyalist, Andrew Deveaux. There was a skirmish with Beaufort Militia near the ferry and the British attacked Bull’s Plantation, near present-day Frogmore, South Carolina. The British chased the militia off at the plantation and then burned the buildings to the ground.

When the Americans at Fort Lyttleton found out the British had destroyed Bull’s Plantation, the militiamen picked up and left. DeTreville knew he would not be able to hold the fort, so he decided to evacuate. Before DeTreville and the rest of his men left, they spiked the cannons so the British could not use them and they blew up one of the bastions, so the British could not use the fort without making repairs.

Moultrie and his men, including General Bull, crossed over to Port Royal Island on February 2 and moved into Beaufort. When Moultrie arrived, he was joined by the Beaufort Milliti and learned Fort Lyttleton had been abandoned.

The Engagement at Beaufort on Port Royal Island Begins

Gardiner landed three companies of regulars and two artillerymen with a howitzer, at the south end of Broad River. They marched to Beaufort.

Meanwhile, Moultrie found out the British were moving to Beaufort and went to meet them. The two small armies met on the top of Gray’s Hill, just outside of Beaufort, around 4:00 in the afternoon.

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The British took defensive positions behind trees in the woods. Moultrie had his men assemble in a field, but outside of the range of the British muskets. Moultrie noted the arrangement of the armies was “reversed from the usual way of fighting between British and Americans; they taking the bushes and we taking the open ground.”

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Gardiner had his men fix their bayonets and advance on the American line. Moultrie responded by having his artillery open fire. The British were forced to fall back, but quickly regrouped and reformed their lines.

Then Gardiner rode out to the front, held up a white handkerchief, and rode over to the American line. Captain Francis Kinlock was sent out to meet him. Gardiner asked him to surrender. Kinlock refused and suggested Gardiner should surrender. Both men returned to their lines, and the British opened fire with their only piece of field artillery, a howitzer cannon.

The American artillery —  two 6-pound cannons and one 2-pound cannon — opened fire and Moultrie sent his men forward. The American bombardment disabled the British howitzer.

Because they were in the open, the Americans were suffering heavy casualties. Moultrie ordered his men to take cover if they could find it.

The two sides exchanged fire for about 45 minutes. 

Both Sides Withdraw

Gardiner did not think he would be able to press on and take the island and his men were running low on ammunition. The Americans were also running low on ammunition. Moultrie said, “I heard a general cry though the line of ‘no more cartridges,’ and was also informed that the ammunition for the field-pieces was almost expended.” As a result, both Gardiner and Moultrie ordered a withdrawal.

Barnwell Pursues Gardiner

American cavalry, led by Captain John Barnwell, saw the British were falling back. He sent word to Moultrie and Moultrie ordered Barnwell and his men — about 15 total — to chase after the British and keep them from reaching their boats. 

Barnwell and his men captured 26 men, but the British were able to regroup and take back some of the prisoners. Gardiner and his men formed up and took defensive positions, which forced Barwell to fall back. 

The Americans were able to hang onto eight of their prisoners, drive the British off the island, and keep them from establishing a military base.

Gardiner Returns to Savannah

When Gardiner returned to Savannah, he was criticized by General Augustine Prevost for the mission’s failure. However, Gardiner had expected he would receive support from South Carolina Loyalists, which never happened.

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General Augustine Prevost, British Army
General Augustine Prevost. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Significance of the Battle of Beaufort at Port Royal Island

The Battle of Beaufort at Port Royal Island is important to the history of the United States, because of the role it played in the American Revolutionary War. As with many American victories in the American Revolutionary War, the win at Port Royal Island boosted the morale of the American troops. On February 4, 1779, the South Carolina and American Gazette said, “If the people of this state will now exert themselves, there may soon be another Burgoyne in the southern quarter of America.” Further, the British were forced to alter plans to attack Charleston, since they were not able to use Port Royal Island as a staging area.

Interesting Facts About the Battle of Beaufort

  • The Battle of Beaufort was the first land battle of the American Revolutionary War in South Carolina.
  • The Battle of Beaufort is the only battle of the American Revolutionary War where two Signers of the Declaration of Independence fought side-by-side. They were Thomas Heyward Jr. and Edward Rutledge.
  • John Barnwell, who would go on to serve in the South Carolina Senate, and have a county in the state named after him, was also with Moultrie’s men.
  • The Lushington Company, led by Captain Richard Lushington, was a volunteer infantry from Charleston. There were 80-100 men in the company, including a dozen Jewish volunteers.
  • American Drum Major Jim Capers was at the battle. He was an enslaved man from Bull’s Island and had served under Francis Marion in the 4th Regiment of the South Carolina Militia. Capers saw action at Savannah, Camden, Eutaw Springs, and Biggins Church. He was also at Yorktown when Cornwallis surrendered.
  • The British wanted to use Port Royal Island to stage an attack on Charleston.

Military Commanders at the Battle of Beaufort

American Forces

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  • William Moultrie
  • Stephen Bull
  • John DeTreville
  • Edward Rutledge
  • Thomas Heyward Jr.
  • Francis Kinlock

British Forces

  • Wiliam Gardiner
  • Patrick Murray
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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title The Battle of Beaufort at Port Royal Island, South Carolina, 1779
  • Coverage February 3, 1779
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Beaufort, Port Royal Island, William Moultrie
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date December 2, 2022
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update November 22, 2022

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