On U.S. 21, just north of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, a historical marker details what happened in the area almost 240 years ago.
“Near the old halfway house in the vicinity of Grays Hill, on February 3, 1779, a force of South Carolina militia, continentals, and volunteers, including men from Beaufort, under General William Moultrie, defeated the British in their attempt to capture Port Royal Island,” the marker reads.
The loose description of where the Revolutionary War battle occurred has recently been firmed up. Archaeologists believe they have pinned down the location of the fight, known as the Battle of Port Royal Island or the Battle of Grays Hill.
They won’t reveal the exact location until the property has been bought. The battlefield spans about 12 acres and has three property owners.
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Historians and archaeologists long knew the general location of the battlefield, but it wasn’t until Daniel Battle and John Allison swept the area with metal detectors that positions of both sides were able to be pinpointed.
The work included identifying artifacts, such as fired and dropped cannonballs, and mapping them with GPS. Historical documents, including Moultrie’s memoirs, detailed how the troops were positioned.
“I’m not sure in the past anybody had tried with this kind of concentrated effort,” said Doug Bostick, director of the S.C. Battleground Preservation Trust.
Battle, of the Georgia American Revolution Preservation Alliance, will present his findings and artifacts during a talk at the Verdier House in Beaufort on Oct. 24.
The Battle of Port Royal Island is one of more than 250 Revolutionary War battles and skirmishes in the state, Bostick said, more than any of the other colonies. The Battleground Preservation Trust is working with other entities to preserve 60 of those sites.
The final product will be called the Liberty Trail and is a project in conjunction with the Campaign 1776 initiative and private Civil War Trust.
Twenty-four of those battlegrounds have been identified so far. The land where the Battle of Port Royal Island was fought, which Bostick said abuts Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, will be preserved once the grant money is available. The process could be complete by the end of the year or early next year.
The American victory, led by Moultrie, was the first of the British campaign in the South and the first land battle in the state, according to the Preservation Alliance.
British soldiers had invaded Savannah in 1778 and worked to take Port Royal Island but were cut down by artillery. The British suffered heavy casualties, and most of the commanders were left dead or wounded.
Bostick noted several reasons the battle was significant:
▪ The strategic interest in capturing Port Royal. The British wanted to control the largest deepwater harbor south of New York City, Bostick said. Though they would eventually get it, the militia succeeded in turning back the initial effort.
▪ Two men who signed the Declaration of Independence — Edward Rutledge and Thomas Heyward Jr. — are believed to have fought on the front lines. Heyward’s house was burned by British troops on the way to the battle. Heyward is said to have taken out a British cannon and two lieutenants with one shot, Bostick said.
▪ This was one of the first battles with documented use of black troops. Among those was Jim Capers, a slave from Christ Church Parish who also fought in battles in Savannah, St. Helena, Port Royal Island, Charleston, Camden and others.
▪ The militia showed its mettle. Some trained soldiers fought for the Patriots at Port Royal Island, but most were farmers, fishermen and carpenters with a reputation for running from conflict. “This is very early in the war; they have not had real battle experience yet,” Bostick said. “For that early battle for Moultrie and militia troops to defeat British regulars would have been an enormous accomplishment.”