A mixed Patriot force defeats British regulars in an open field battle, temporarily halting a British advance inland from their coastal holdings.
In late 1778, the Revolutionary War was approaching a stalemate. Unable to dislodge George Washington in the northern colonies, British strategists turned their attention to the south.
Their first move was to capture Savannah, Georgia, which they did successfully on December 29, 1778. They planned to use the coastal city as a gateway to the southern countryside, drawing on support from colonial loyalists and using their superior resources to open a second front against the beleaguered Washington.
However, southern patriots mounted a heavy resistance as the British moved inland. On Port Royal Island, South Carolina, just north of Savannah, the British wanted to establish a base for the loyalist recruitment. Instead, they encountered a stubborn force of patriot militia and regulars.
On February 2, 1779, some 200 British infantry landed on Port Royal Island and moved to attack the Americans, who were camped around Beaufort. On February 3, the Americans took positions around Gray’s Hill to meet the advance.
As the British approached, the Americans attacked under the covering fire of three artillery pieces. A 45-minute battle ensued, in which the two sides delivered volley after volley of musketry with little maneuvering.
Both sides ran low on ammunition, and the British retreated just as the Americans began a more orderly withdrawal. William Moultrie, commanding the Americans, swiftly ordered a cavalry pursuit that nearly trapped the British as they fled to their boats.
Returning to Savannah, British field commander William Gardner was censured by overall commander Augustine Prevost for his ignomious defeat at the hands of the patriots, who were mostly composed of militia at the battle. The battle further cemented William Moultrie’s reputation as one of the best patriot officers in the south. The British would remain bottled up in Savannah for the remainder of 1779.