Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, Volume One
Henry Lee

CHAPTER XIII.

GENERAL Lincoln, having called in his different corps, broke up from his position in Dorchester, and sat down close to John’s Island, which the Stono inlet separates from the main.

On the main at the ferry, upon this inlet or river, the van of the British was posted, consisting of one thousand and five hundred men under lieutenant colonel Prevost, who had erected three redoubts in his front for the security of his position. The numerous small craft, being fastened together, formed a communication between the van and the main body on the islands.

Notwithstanding the British expedition had issued in disappointments, to which in military transactions more or less ignominy is always attached, Lincoln was not satisfied, but was very desirous to wind up with eclat the toilsome and passive operations, into which he had been reluctantly drawn, by his enterprising adversary. The van of the enemy only was within his reach; and as the bridge of boats afforded the sole conveyance to troops detached to its support, the supporting force was necessarily limited. Relying upon the advantage this circumstance afforded, Lincoln moved towards Stono on the 4th June, with the resolution of striking at the van post; but after examining the enemy’s condition, he thought proper to decline risking an assault.

In the course of ten or twelve days, lieutenant colonel Prevost, with a portion of the army, was detached to the Savannah. The vessels forming the temporary bridge being taken by this officer (in consequence of the intention then entertained of retiring from the main) for the purpose of conveying his troops, the communication across the Stono, reverted to ferry transportation. General Prevost afterwards relinquished his design of drawing his van into the island, and sent lieutenant colonel Maitland to take charge of it.

This officer possessed a growing reputation which he well deserved. Not only was the boat bridge broken up, rendering the communication more inconvenient, but the garrison had been reduced to five hundred men. Maitland hastened to improve his condition by separating from it every incumbrance. His sick, his spare baggage, his horses, with every other appurtenance, not necessary to defence, were conveyed across the Stono; and he added to the security of his post all those aids from labor, which genius and industry beget.

Lincoln was soon advised of the departure of lieutenant colonel Prevost, with the simultaneous occurrences. Resuming his original design, he did not hesitate to seize the present inviting opportunity to execute it. On the 19th he moved with his army, determined to attack Maitland on the next morning. In accordance with this decision, general Moultrie was directed to take possession of James’ Island with a detachment from Charleston, for the purpose of passing thence into John’s Island in order to draw upon himself the attention of the British general, and thus divert him from the attack upon his van. The ground in front of the enemy was level, and covered, at a small distance from his works, with a grove of large pine trees.

On the 20th, Lincoln advanced to the assault. The North Carolina militia composed his right,[note 35] under brigadier Butler and his regulars, his left under general Sumner. The flanks were covered by light troops, lieutenant colonel Henderson at the head of one, and colonel Malmedy at the head of the other corps; and the reserve consisted of the cavalry, with a small brigade of Virginia militia under general Mason. The Highlanders, called the best troops of the enemy, being known to take post on his right, became by this order of battle opposed to the continental soldiers. Maitland’s piquets announced the American approach; and the British detachment formed for action. The seventy-first regiment was posted on the right, and a regiment of Hessians on the left. Lieutenant colonel Hamilton, with the North Carolina regiment, composed the centre. The British flanks seemed to be secure; as the one rested upon a morass, and the other upon a deep ravine. The first was firm enough to bear infantry; and the other was not intersected by water. Notwithstanding appearances, both were, in fact, assailable. The retiring piquets were supported by two companies of the seventy-first regiment, who, with their usual intrepidity, rushed into close action, and, fighting bravely, were mostly destroyed. This advantage encouraged the assailants, who were now ordered to reserve their fire and to put the issue of the battle on the bayonet.

Our troops advanced with alacrity; and the enemy waited their approach until we got within sixty yards of the abbatis, when a full fire from the artillery and small arms was delivered. Disobeying orders, our line returned the fire, which was continued on both sides without intermission for half an hour. The action became keen and general; the Americans continuing their fire with ardor. The enemy’s left was driven back; and Maitland, seeing his danger, made a quick movement with the seventy-first regiment, from the right to the left, supplying its vacancy with his reserve. The Highlanders revived the contest on the left. The Hessians, being rallied, were brought again into line: and the action raged with increased fury. Lincoln, foreseeing the consequences, was chagrined to find his plan of battle interrupted; and exerted himself to stop the fire. At length he succeeded: a pause ensued; and the order for charge was renewed. Vain attempt! the moment was passed; and instandy the firing recommenced, and continued for more than one hour: when the army of general Prevost was seen hastening to the ferry; Moultrie having failed in making the intended diversion for want of boats. The British lieutenant colonel manifested by the past conflict the probable issue of the future, strengthened, as he soon would be, by the support fast approaching; which consideration induced Lincoln to order a retreat. This movement produced now, as it generally does, some disorder; which being perceived by Maitland, he advanced upon Lincoln with his whole force. The cavalry (Pulaski was not present) were ordered up by the American general to charge the enemy, whose zeal in pursuit had thrown them into loose order. This was gallantly executed; but Maitland closed his ranks as the horse bore upon him, and giving them a full fire from his rear rank, the front, holding its ground with charged bayonets, brought this corps (brave, but undisciplined) to the right about.[note 36] Thus terminated the battle of Stono. It was evidently lost, first, by the failure in the diversion from Charleston, secondly by the erroneous plan of attack, and lastly by the deviation from orders in its execution. It seems surprising that if, as we must presume, a sufficiency of boats had been ascertained to have been at our command before the assault was determined upon, how it could happen that any deficiency should occur in the moment of execution, unless from want of due attention in the department charged with their collection, which evinces culpable negligence. Due force of battle was pointed against the enemy’s front, in which lay his strength, as he had improved that part of his position by three redoubts, and other defences; whereas our chief effort ought to have been on his flanks, which invited primary attention, as they were unfortified, and would, upon due examination, have been found only to present an opposition easily overthrown. The morass was considered as impassable, whereas it was a firm marsh, lieutenant colonel Henderson having passed it in the course of the action with a part of his corps. The halt of the line, returning the enemy’s fire instead of pressing on with the bayonet, baffled our last hope of victory; nor is it improbable, had the appeal to the bayonet been uninterrupted, but that our courage would have surmounted all difficulties; and that we should have obtained the desired prize with heavy loss, which was attainable by a small sacrifice of lives, had we directed our attack against the enemy’s vulnerable points. There was throughout our war, a lamentable ignorance in the topography of the country in which we fought, imposing upon our generals serious disadvantages. They had to ascertain the nature of the ground by reconnoitring, or by inquiry among the inhabitants. The first was not always practicable; and the result of the last was generally defective. Government ought to provide, in time of peace, maps on a large scale of the various districts of the country, designating particularly the rivers, their tributary streams, the bridges, morasses and defiles, and hold them ready for use when wanting, or we shall have to encounter the same difficulties in any future, that we experienced in this, war.

The loss was nearly equal, amounting to one hundred and sixty-five killed and wounded on the side of America. Among our killed was colonel Robert, of the Charleston artillery, a much respected officer. The American troops conducted themselves in this affair very much like genuine soldiers, except in the deranging breach of orders.

Lieutenant colonel Hamilton, with the majors M’Arthur and Moncruif, nobly supported Maitland throughout the action.

In the course of a few days, the British general retired from John’s Island and the adjacent main, unperceived, pursuing his route along the interior navigation to Georgia, leaving lieutenant colonel Maitland at Beaufort, in the island of Port Royal, while general Lincoln, reduced by the return of the militia to the continentals, (about eight hundred) established himself at Sheldon, conveniently situated to attend to the enemy at Beaufort. The sultry season had set in; which, in this climate, like the frost of the north, gives repose to the soldier.[note 37]

Preparations for the next campaign, and the preservation of the health of the troops, now engrossed the chief attention of the hostile generals.

Prevost, having reached Savannah, took up his quarters for the season, detachhig lieutenant colonel Cruger with one of the Provincial regiments to Sunbury.[note 38] This division of his force very well corresponded with the resumption of offensive operations, although it subjected the British to great hazard, should a superior French fleet visit our coast, as had happened the preceding year.

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