New Cut, Johns Island, South Carolina
Siege of Charlestown
12 – 15 January 1782
After Cornwallis surrendered in Yorktown the British only had troops in three Southern port towns, Savannah, Wilmington, and Charlestown. Wilmington was evacuated and Lieutenant Colonel Craig and his 82nd Regiment were moved to Charlestown. Craig was assigned the job of tending the British cattle on Johns Island and commanding the garrison of 500 troops on the island. Craig was housed on the eastern end of John’s Island at Gibbes’s Plantation. His troops were stationed at Fenwick Hall and some British dragoons were stationed four miles away.
When Cornwallis surrendered in Virginia the Continentals at Yorktown were moved into the Carolinas to reinforce Greene’s army. General St. Clair marched into South Carolina with a force of 2,000 Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware Continentals. They drove along with them 400 beef cattle and moved through mud up to their knees. They arrived at Round O on January 4th.
On January 8th some of the Pennsylvania and Maryland troops were assigned to Colonel John Laurens near Parker’s Ferry. Lieutenant John Tilden of the Pennsylvania Line wrote that they built "huts of rails which we cover with straw." The huts were "very bad off for want of furniture." On January 11th they received some relief when their tents arrived.
Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee devised a plan with Laurens to steal the British cattle on Johns Island and then presented the idea to General Greene. On January 8th the General Assembly would convene for the first time since Charlestown fell.
Greene had written to Governor Rutledge and told him that civil government needed to be "set up immediately" because the public should be ruled by the "civil rather than military authority." Greene knew that with the negotiotians of a peace treaty between England and the United States, Britain could claim civil authority over the Southern states, and could possibly continue to rule over the region. However if South Carolina had a functioning government, British claims to the region would not be justified.
Since the capital was still in British hands the legislature would meet in Jacksonboro. Greene knew that the only threat to the Legislature was the British on John’s Island. He decided to eliminate this threat with the surprise raid on John’s Island.
Laurens and Lee would lead the Patriot expedition against John’s Island and would be supported by the main army under Greene. Since the Patriots didn’t have any boats they could only approach the island by a narrow canal to the Stono River called New Cut. The canal could only be crossed two times each month, shortly after midnight when "the depth of water was not more than waist high.""
The British knew about the strategic value of New Cut and they placed a galley and two gunboats, four hundred yards apart, to guard the cut. The galleys had to remain apart so they could still stay afloat at low tide, and this left a gap that the Patriots could pass through. The tide gave them only small window to get in, strike the British, and get out.
Lee and Laurens decided to strike at John’s Island on December 29th, but they learned that the British had stationed troops on James Island across the inlet from John’s Island. To go ahead would be too risky and the operation was canceled until a later time. Two weeks later both commanders agreed to make another attempt.
On the cold and rainy night of January 12th Lee and Laurens rendezvoused at a point less than a mile from New Cut. Greene and the main army had broken camp the day before and marched towards John’s Island in case the British tried to send reinforcements to assist Colonel Craig.
As Laurens waited he addressed his men, appealing to their honor and their patriotism. He issued instructions to his men on how to cross the waist deep water without getting their arms or ammunition wet. He told them that no one was "to fire or advance without orders, confusion only can arise from unconnected individual efforts."
Laurens divided his force into two columns. Lee commanded one and Major James Hamilton of the Pennsylvania Line commanded the other. At one o’clock in the morning the crossing began. Lee sent Captain John Rudolph across first with the Legion Infantry. As they moved they could hear the British sentries in the boats call out "All’s safe." Lee’s column easily made the crossing onto John’s Island.
The second column under Major Hamilton soon broke contact in the darkness and disappeared. Laurens searched for an hour and finally found Hamilton. Hamilton’s guide had deserted him leaving his troops to find their way on their own. That hour they were lost had seemed like an eternity. When the tide came in Laurens had no choice but to call off the operation and recall Lee’s troops who had made it on the island. On the march back across the cut Lee’s men found themselves waist deep in "mud, weeds and water." Several soldiers became stuck in the mud and "were obliged to be pulled out."
On January 14th Greene had his men search the riverbank for a boat to ferry Laurens’ troops back across the inlet to try again. To cover their withdrawal he brought up his cannon to fire on the galleys as they crossed. The artillery fired on the British vessels throughout the day, but the boats refused to withdraw. That night Craig evacuated the island and the British galleys withdrew from the cut.
On the 15th Laurens and a small force of cavalry and infantry crossed the Cut in a boat and found the remains of the British camp. It had been hurriedly abandoned. Laurens captured a few stragglers, but General Leslie had learned of Greene’s raid and had moved all his men to James Island. Laurens did find a schooner that the British had loaded all their supplies onto. Laurens ordered his men to attack the schooner and his men fire a volley at her. This "threw the Crew into great confusion" almost making the schooner run aground. The British crew on the schooner stacked the baggage and used it as protection against the musket balls. They returned fire as their ship moved slowly away. Laurens had remarked, "If I had a three pounder…perhaps She might still be taken."
Craig’s new position was at Perroneau’s on James Island. Greene remarked, "We have got the territory but we missed the great objective of the enterprise." Greene withdrew to an encampment at Skirving’s Plantation, six miles in front of Jacksonboro on the road to Charlestown. The expedition was a failure, but it did eliminate the threat to Jacksonboro.
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