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. The British 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 Americans.
On South Carolina’s Port Royal Island, just north of Savannah, the British planned to establish a base for Loyalist recruitment. Instead, they encountered a stubborn force of Patriot militia and regulars.
On February 2, 1779, some 200 British infantrymen landed on the island and moved to attack the Americans, who were camped around the town of Beaufort.
On February 3, the Americans took positions around Gray’s Hill and prepared to meet the enemy advance. As the British approached, the Americans attacked under the covering fire of three artillery pieces. A 45-minute battle ensued, during 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 of their own. William Moultrie, commanding the Americans, quickly ordered a cavalry pursuit that nearly trapped the British as they fled to their boats.
Returning to Savannah, the British field commander William Gardner was censured by overall commander Augustine Prevost for his ignominious defeat at the hands of a Patriot force, that consisted primarily of militia.
The battle further cemented William Moultrie’s reputation as one of the best Patriot officers in the south. The British remained bottled up in Savannah for the remainder of 1779.