The Battle of Stono Ferry, South Carolina — Lincoln's Costly Defeat

June 20, 1779

The Battle of Stono Ferry took place on June 20, 1779. British forces led by Lieutenant Colonel John Maitland defeated American forces under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln, further establishing British control of Georgia.

General Benjamin Lincoln, Illustration

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

Battle of Stono Ferry Summary

The Battle of Stono Ferry was fought between the United States of America and Great Britain on June 20, 1779, at Stono Ferry, South Carolina, during the American Revolutionary War. Following an attack on Charleston, South Carolina, British forces took a defensive position at Stono Ferry, near present-day Rantowles, South Carolina. American forces under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln attacked the British on June 20. Despite having the advantage in numbers, Lincoln was unable to capture the post and was forced to retreat. The outcome of the battle allowed the British to retain control of Georgia, setting the stage for the Siege of Savannah in October 1779.

Battle of Stono Ferry Quick Facts

  • Date Started: The Battle of Stono Ferry started on June 20, 1779.
  • Date Ended: It ended on June 20, 1779.
  • Location: The battle was fought at Stono Ferry, near Rantowles, South Carolina.
  • Theater: The battle took place in the Southern Theater of the American Revolutionary War.
  • Campaign: The Battle of Stono Ferry was part of the British Southern Campaign of the American Revolutionary War.
  • Who Won: Great Britain won the Battle of Stono Ferry.

What happened at the Stono Ferry Battle?

Following the defeat at the Battle of Briar Creek, General Benjamin Lincoln was still determined to force the British out of Georgia. Lincoln took around 4,000 men and marched toward Augusta, leaving General William Moultrie and 1,000 men to guard Purrysburg and Black Swamp. 

William Moultrie, Portrait
William Moultrie. Image Source: Wikipedia.

British General Augustine Prevost responded by marching toward Charleston, which was under American control. It was a diversion, intended to trick Lincoln into marching back to Charleston. At first, Lincoln ignored the tactic and was 10 miles away from Augusta when Prevost moved closer to Charleston and engaged American forces on June 11 and 12. Lincoln quickly turned around and headed back to Charleston. Meanwhile, the British attack was unsuccessful and Prevost was forced to pull back.

Prevost moved his men south onto James Island and then Johns Island, and build a redoubt at the Stono River Ferry. The post provided a defensive position for the rear of Prevost’s army and a base for British foraging parties. Prevost left his brother, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Prevost, in command of the post at Stono Ferry and returned to Savannah. There were about 1,500 men defending Stono Ferry and another continent of men at Johns Island.

Lincoln and South Carolina Governor John Rutledge responded by planning an attack on Stono Ferry. Lieutenant Colonel Prevost weakened the post at Stono Ferry by leaving. He took most of the men with him to Savannah and left 500 men under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Maitland. On June 17, Maitland started to abandon Stono Ferry as well, moving troops and supplies to Johns Island. He intended to move to Beaufort, South Carolina. At Stono Ferry, the British post was defended by Loyalists, Hessians, and the 71st Highlanders.

When Lincoln found out Maitland was leaving, he took around 1,200 of his 7,000 men to attack the British at Stono Ferry. He ordered General Willian Moultrie to join him, but Moultrie and his 700 troops were delayed.

Lincoln arrived at Stono Ferry early in the morning of June 20 and attacked around 7:00 a.m. As the Americans moved in, Maitland sent two companies of Highlanders out to scout the American forces. The Americans engaged them and the Highlanders held their position as long as possible. They suffered heavy casualties and were forced to fall back. Only eleven of them returned to the British redoubt.

Lincoln ordered the Continentals on his left to assault the Highlanders with bayonets, but the Americans encountered an unexpected creek and marsh in their way. The water and defensive works slowed them down, so they opened fire with their muskets, which led to a prolonged exchange of musket fire between both sides. 

The Patriot Militia on Lincoln’s right pushed ahead and attacked the Hessians. The Hessians were overwhelmed, so Maitland sent Highlanders to reinforce them. The move stopped the American advance.

Lincoln ordered a bayonet charge, but his men refused and continued to fire on the British forces with their muskets. Soon after, Lincoln realized he would not be able to take the redoubt, so he ordered his men to retreat. However, his men were confused and disorganized. 

Maitland took advantage of the situation and ordered a counterattack. As the British forces rushed his men, Lincoln ordered his cavalry, which included Casimir Pulaski and William Richardson Davie, to charge. However, the British were able to successfully repel the cavalry and the British advance continued, forcing Lincoln and the Americans to abandon the field. Moultrie and his men arrived at Wapoo Creek, near Stono Ferry, but the battle was already over.

Following the battle, Maitland moved to Port Royal Island and Lieutenant Colonel Prevost joined his brother in Savannah. The British maintained control of Georgia while the Americans, along with French reinforcements, planned to attack Savannah in October.

Stono Ferry Battle Significance

The Battle of Stono Ferry is important to United States history because it was a significant victory for the British, allowing them to retain control of Georgia. From there, they planned to move north and capture the rest of the Southern Colonies.

What Led to the Battle of Stono Ferry?

After the British surrendered at Saratoga, the British were forced to reassess their military strategy in America. Although the British had control of New York City and Philadelphia, the war was not going well in the North or in the Middle Colonies. Further, France declared war on Britain and pledged military and financial support to the United States. 

Believing there was strong Loyalist support in the South, General Sir Henry Clinton, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in North America, devised a plan that relied on the idea that Loyalists would turn out and fight with the British. The goal was to capture the Southern Colonies, control the South, and force the rest of the American Colonies into submission.

As part of the strategy, he evacuated Philadelphia and send troops to capture Savannah, Georgia. On June 18, 1778, the British occupation of Philadelphia ended as Clinton and around 15,000 men left the city and sailed to New York.

The British Open the Southern Campaign

Clinton sent Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell and 3,100 men from New York to Savannah, for the purpose of capturing the city. A second British force, led by General Augustine Provost, marched out of St. Augustine, in the British Colony of East Florida, toward Savannah.

Lt Colonel Archibald Campbell, American Revolution
Lt Colonel Archibald Campbell. Image Source: Wikipedia.

British Forces Capture of Savannah at the First Battle of Savannah

On December 23, Campbell landed downriver from Savannah. The city was defended by a small force of 650 to 900 men, under the command of General Robert Howe. The Americans took defensive positions just south of Savannah, where they were surrounded by swamps, which Howe hoped would slow the British advance. The British found a path through the swamps on the right flank of the American line and attacked. The Americans were overwhelmed and quickly retreated. Within an hour, the British were in control of Savannah.

British Forces Capture Augusta

After the battle, Prevost arrived and reinforced Campbell. As Campbell’s superior, Prevost assumed command of the garrison at Savannah. A month later, Campbell marched toward Augusta, expecting to be joined by Loyalists and Native American Indians who were allied with the British. The response was nothing near what Campbel expected. During the march, he was harassed by American forces, under the command of General Andrew Williamson. However, Williamson was not able to stop Campbell and the British captured Augusta on January 29, 1779. 

American Victory at Kettle Creek

Soon after the British captured Augusta, Colonel John Boyd, a Loyalist, worked his way through the backcountry of North Carolina and South Carolina, gathering Loyalists who were willing to fight for the British. As he marched to Augusta, he was harassed by Patriot forces. When General Benjamin Lincoln deployed American forces around Augusta, Campbell decided to abandon the city and return to Savannah on February 13. Boyd was unaware and continued his march, crossing into Georgia. Boyd was also unaware that South Carolina forces led by Colonel Andrew Pickens were closing in to engage him. On the morning of February 14, Boyd and his men were on the march when they stopped near Kettle Creek in Wilkes County, Georgia, just long enough for Pickens to launch his attack. After intense fighting carried on for roughly an hour and a half, Boyd was shot and fell, mortally wounded. Seeing him fall, his men scattered and moved south. The Loyalists suffered heavy casualties and the Patriots captured around 75 men. Although the victory at Kettle Creek was small, it came less than two weeks after the American victory at the Battle of Beaufort and helped boost American morale in Georgia.

British Victory at Briar Creek Sets the Stage for Stono Ferry

Following Kettle Creek, Lincoln moved his forces into position to attack Augusta. He sent General John Ashe to Briar Creek in Eastern Georgia. General Prevost ordered Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell to send men to engage Ashe. On March 3, Lieutenant Colonel Prevost led the attack on the American camp. Ashe and his men were overwhelmed and routed at the Battle of Briar Creek, hampering Lincon’s plan to attack Augusta. Although he continued his march to Augusta, his overall army was significantly reduced by the loss of Ashe’s men and the fact he had to leave Moultrie behind. The defeat at Briar Creek checked the American victories at Beaufort and Kettle Creek.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Battle of Stono Ferry, South Carolina — Lincoln's Costly Defeat
  • Date June 20, 1779
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Stono Ferry, Benjamin Lincoln, William Moultrie
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 13, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 26, 2024