Lowcountry battlefield where Declaration of Independence signers fought discovered

It was early 1779. Savannah had fallen.

The British campaign to secure the South and rein in American rebels waged on, sending troops up into the Lowcountry.

On Feb. 3 of that year, as British Gen. Augustine Prevost and his forces approached Beaufort, he was met by American resistance at Port Royal Island. The battle that ensued wasn’t huge, but it was significant. It was the first land battle in South Carolina. The underdog Americans won — their first victory of the British Southern Campaign. Two men who signed the Declaration of Independence fought that day.

But despite the battle itself being relatively well recorded, the site of the conflict was lost to history.

Until recently.

A Lowcountry archaeologist and other history buffs say they’ve uncovered the site, and they plan to reveal its location to the public soon — with plans to turn it into a park and memorial.

“We’ve kind of always known within about a mile or so circle where it probably was, but to actually locate it physically on the ground is incredibly important,” said Charles Baxley, a Columbia-area lawyer and president of the preservation interest group Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution in South Carolina. “It’s part of our nation’s birth story. It’s important to see the place, understand the place and be able to interpret it so when folks go there they’ll know what happened there, who bled and died there and for what.”

 

Looking for a fight

 

Daniel Battle has a fitting last name. He’s a conflict archaeologist.

That means he spends a good bit of time in the dirt trying to root out and preserve old battlegrounds and other artifacts related to America’s military history. Concerned about the lack of preservation of such sites in his native Georgia, he founded a nonprofit called Georgia American Revolution Preservation Alliance and got to work.

His nonprofit was instrumental in restoring and preserving the Brier Creek battlefield near Augusta.

But Battle lives in Beaufort, and it bugged him that the site of the Port Royal Island conflict had been seemingly lost to history.

“I started wondering why there wasn’t more written about it — Beaufort is proud of the history,” Battle said. “I started saying, ‘This is unbelievable that nothing is being done about a fairly significant Revolutionary War battle…

“I made it my personal mission to find out where it was.”

Luckily, he has the expertise. He works with an archaeology consulting firm in Beaufort, Cypress Cultural Consultants LLC.

Battle studied what written information was available, looked at maps and set out with a metal detector. After about four months, he struck historical gold.

“Finally, I walked through the battlefield where a lot of shots were exchanged, and after the third artifact, I knew I had found what I was looking for,” Battle said.

He says his team found “a big field fire” and dug up cannonballs and cannister shot that had obviously been fired from artillery cannons. That was an important indicator, he said: The Americans had two six-pounder cannons from the Charleston Artillery.

They carry a telltale sign of being fired from that type of weapon.

“When they come out, they leave scarring that is scarring that is unmistakable in its identification,” Battle said. “We started finding these large amounts of artillery — leaded shot — it was in patterns that we could literally look at patterns forming on the ground from this shot. We could draw a geometric line back to the position of where we could predict the American artillery sitting.”

It’s hard evidence.

“When Dan called me and said we found the battlefield of Port Royal Island, I said, ‘I’ll be down there immediately,’” said historian and author Doug Bostic, executive director and CEO of the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust. “Their scholarship on this has been very impressive, and we can say with confidence that the battlefield is located and, No. 2, that we’re preserving the right place.”

New future for the past

That’s the aim — preserving the newly relocated battlefield.

Right now, a group that includes Battle, Bostic, Baxley and members of LAMAR and South Carolina Sons of the American Revolution is working to secure the site in order to keep its story alive. They believe part of the site is on property used by U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, something they hope will prompt quicker federal recognition and preservation.

But some of the area is on privately owned land, and the Battleground Preservation Trust is working to shore up sales. That’s why they’re keeping mum about location, other than to say it’s about seven miles outside town.

“The negotiations are ongoing, but the property owner is very interested in trying to make it work,” Bostic said.

Battle says more than 50 artifacts have already been recovered and he hopes donations or grants can fund a formal study of the site.

He says the story of the conflict is important to the American identity — a reason he wanted to go public with his findings around the Fourth of July. Before the battle took place, he said, Americans in the South had suffered several morale-lowering defeats.

“This kind of gave a shot in the Americans’ arm of confidence,” Battle said. “It was not a strategically important battle, but it was definitely something the Americans needed very badly psychologically.”

Battle says about 500 soldiers on both sides fought that day. Only about 10 Americans were killed on the field, compared to about 40 British dead, Battle said.

Key to the Americans’ victory in the battle was the use of cannons. The American troops led by Gen. William Moultrie had three: two six-pounders and a two-pounder. That gave them an advantage and put them, for the most part, out of range of musket fire, according to “The History of Beaufort County,” written by historian Larry Rowland, a professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

In addition to the Declaration signers, Thomas Heyward Jr. and Edward Rutledge, the battle included the first African American troops to fight against the British in South Carolina, according to Battle. One African American soldier in particular, drummer James Capers, stayed in the war from the Battle of Port Royal — also called the Battle of Beaufort or the Battle of Gray’s Hill — until the British surrender at Yorktown, the beginning of the end.

Bostic says it’s one of 25 sites the Battleground Preservation Trust is aiming to preserve. In the future, if things go according to plan, visitors should be able to use a smartphone app to guide them to the site and to effectively guide themselves around with pre-recorded tidbits. Of course, there would also be the typical plaques and informational amenities often seen at historic sites.

“This will be marketed nationally,” Bostic said of the effort to preserve the Beaufort battle site and others in the state. “We think it has the potential to make a real big statement in heritage tourism.”

It’s going to take some work.

“Our goal is to turn these battlefields into outdoor classrooms,” Bostic said. “... Our objective is to tell these stories for generations to come.”

LEARN MORE

To learn more about the battle site and its history, find “1779 Battle of Port Royal or Beaufort, S.C. American Revolution” on Facebook.

To learn more about Daniel Battle’s efforts here, find his nonprofit, Georgia American Revolution Preservation Alliance, on Facebook.

And for more information about battlefield preservation in the Lowcountry and elsewhere in South Carolina, go to scbattlegroundtrust.org.

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