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To George Washington from Major General Benjamin Lincoln, 7 July 1779

From Major General Benjamin Lincoln

Charles-Town, [S.C.] July 7th 1779.

Dear General,

Since I did myself the honor to address you on the 5th Ulto by Major Rice, the enemy have evac⟨u⟩ated their posts, at Stono-Ferry and on John’s Island;1 have sent I hear their sick and wounded to St Augustine; part of them are returned to Savannah, and the other are in their vessels and on the Islands of Port-Royal and St Helena;2 By the latest information they do not mean to take post there, but return to Georgia.

By some information I received, on the 19th, from their camp at Stono-Ferry, I thought that an attack of that post might be made with success, provided, by shewing a body on James-Island, we could divert the enemy on John’s Island and prevent their reinforcing at the ferry. Orders were given to Genl Moultrie, who commanded at Charles-Town, to throw across Ashley river, that night, all the men he could spare from town, and make a movement against the enemy on John’s Island: But unfortunately, as I learnt after, he was prevented doing it by the want of boats. I moved in the morning of the 20th with the principal part of our force, 1400 o⟨r⟩ 1500 men, to the enemies lines. arrived there about 7 in the morning. The enemy were encamped with their rear towards and near to Stono river; They had three redoubts, one on their right, one on their left, and a little one on the right of the center, with Abbatis between them. We formed in a wood three or four hundred yards in their front—So. Carolina militia (Genl Williamson’s Brigade) on the right—So. Carolina Continental troops on the left—The No. Carolina militia—then the No. Carolina Continentals—We threw our best troops on the left on the line to oppose them to the Highlanders who were on the right of the enemy. Our right flank was covered by a corps of Lt troops commanded by Colonel Malmedy; our left by another corps of Lt troops commanded by Lieut. Colo. Henderson3—a few horse also were ordered on each of the flanks—The Virginia militia, under Colonel Mason,4 and some Light Horse formed a corps of reserve. Our right began the attack, by a brisk fire of Field-pieces & musquetry; our left were ordered to march up without firing and charge the enemy with fixed bayonets; but we failed in that attempt; a warm fire from the enemy, in spite of every exertion of the officers, drew our fire; after which it was impossible to bring up the men. The enemy suffered much by an attempt to turn our flanks; they were soon driven within their lines. Finding that they were strongly reinforced from John’s Island, and that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to possess ourselves of their works, I was induced to order our people to retire to and form in a wood a little in our rear; which, I an happy to inform you, was effected; this prevented a general sally from the enemy, & gave time to secure our Artillery and wounded men—we halted & formed several times in leaving the ground. A return of the killed, wounded & missing I do myself the honor to enclose.5 Tho’ all was not done, which I wished, yet in justice to the officers and men, say in general they behaved well. The enemies loss cannot by us be ascertained, but by deserters, inhabitants and others, it was very considerable: By one of the disaffected inhabitants taken soon after, they had 60 killed on the spot; various accounts since say many more. Three days after they evacuated this post in so secret a manner, that our guard, which was about their lines, made no discovery thereof.6

The time, for which the North-Carolina militia engaged to serve, expires with the 10th inst. The Virginians the 15th & the No. Carolina Levies the beginning of August—The militia of this State are already gone—After a few days our number in the field will be short of 800 men.

Few of the militia are collecting in the upper part of Georgia; I have sent the remains of the Georgia-brigade (about [  ]) to join them.

I have not heard what is become of the Virginia Light Horse, ordered by Congress; or that their troops, under Genl Scott, have yet left their State.7 I cannot soon expect the North-Carolinians. At present, I think, nothing is to be apprehended from the enemy; their numbers are greatly diminished by sickness and desertion: It cannot be for their interest to attempt anything active this hot season; if they can keep their men from the fevers of the country, with every attention, it will be more than has been done heretofore. I think by the latter end of October the weather will permit them to take the field again; by that time, at farthest, I hope our reinforcements will arrive. My particular attention now is to the supplies for the next campaign; many are wanted, and without them we cannot keep the field. I hope with the assistance of this State & the Continental Agent8 a tolerable supply will be obtained.

You will wonder, I am persuaded, Sir, that I am in this hot climate so late as this day, after the kind indulgence of Congress permitting me to return. When I received the permission, the beginning of June, matters were in such situation at that time as led Genl Moultrie, who was to succeed me, the Govr & Council, to request my continuing a little longer—I found it difficult after that to leave camp suddenly, and especially as I had not ill health to plead in excuse for it:9 I am yet in good health; I suffer a little from my leg10—it has been healed, but lately broke out, and is now in much the same state as when I had the honor to join you last August.11 I am &c.

LB, MHi: Lincoln Papers. GW’s signed reply to Lincoln of 28 Sept., found in MH, gives the date of this letter from Lincoln to GW as 8 July.

1Stono Ferry, S.C., lies along the Stono River, which divides James Island from Johns Island, S.C., about fourteen miles from the river’s coastal inlet. James Island, and the much larger Johns Island to its south and west, are South Carolina sea islands located just south of Charleston.

2The islands of Port Royal (Beaufort) and St. Helena are among a group of South Carolina coastal islands lying north of the Broad River about fifty miles southwest of Charleston.

3William Henderson (1748–1788) moved from North Carolina to the Ninety Six district of South Carolina before the Revolution and served as a delegate to the state provincial congress and general assembly. After service in the state militia very early in the war, Henderson joined the 6th South Carolina Regiment (2d South Carolina Rifles) as its major in June 1775 and became lieutenant colonel of that regiment in September 1776. He commanded the regiment during the Battle of Stono Ferry in June 1779. Henderson transferred to the 3d South Carolina Regiment (rangers) in February 1780 and was taken prisoner when the garrison surrendered at Charleston that May. Exchanged that November, he became lieutenant colonel of the 1st South Carolina Regiment in January 1781 and was wounded at the Battle of Eutaw Springs, S.C., that September. Promoted to colonel in September 1783. Henderson held a Continental army commission until the end of the war but served as brigadier general of South Carolina state troops in 1782 and 1783. He also was a delegate to the state general assembly 1779–80, 1782, and again in 1784.

4Col. David Mason, former commander of the 15th Virginia Regiment, had marched to South Carolina with a volunteer militia regiment following a request from Lincoln to the Virginia council in late March to relieve his “Distressed Situation … for want of Troops” (McIlwaine, Letters of the Governors, description begins H. R. McIlwaine, ed. Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia. 3 vols. Richmond, 1926–29. description ends 1:363–64).

5This enclosure has not been identified, but Lincoln enclosed in his letter to John Jay of 21 June a “Return of the killed wounded and missing in the Action 20th June 1779” that listed casualties by rank for each unit, named wounded officers (three of whom were “since dead”), and reported a total of thirty killed, 116 wounded, and nine missing (DNA:PCC, item 158).

Lincoln’s letter to Jay provides another account of the battle on the previous day: “On driving the enemy within their lines, we found, that their works were much stronger than they were represented, that our Artillery was quite too light to annoy them therein, and that the enemy were reinforced from John’s Island; it therefore became necessary to withdraw our force; which was effected, with little interruption, after sending off our wounded &c. There was no officer killed on the field, and but few men. Several officers were wounded; some of whom have since died … The enemy who were, at first, out of their lines, on their flanks, suffered greatly” (DNA:PCC, item 158; see also Mattern, Benjamin Lincoln, description begins David B. Mattern. Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution. Columbia, S.C., 1995. description ends 73–74).

6This action on 20 June, known as the Battle of Stono Ferry, targeted an outpost of 900 troops under the command of Lt. Col. John Maitland that remained after Maj. Gen. Augustine Prevost’s failed attempt to capture Charleston in May (see GW to Jay, 26 May, n.1). A modern estimate puts American casualties at 34 killed, 113 wounded, and 18 missing, and British losses at 26 killed and 103 wounded (Peckham, Toll of Independence, description begins Howard H. Peckham, ed. The Toll of Independence: Engagements & Battle Casualties of the American Revolution. Chicago, 1974. description ends 61). Maitland’s force subsequently withdrew from Stono Ferry and joined Prevost’s command at Port Royal Island. For Prevost’s account of the battle and its aftermath, dated 4 Aug., see Davies, Documents of the American Revolution, description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends 17:175–76.

7Lincoln is referring to the 1st and 3d Continental Dragoon regiments that Congress had ordered in May to reinforce his army (see JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends 14:559–60; see also GW to Theodorick Bland, 21 May, and to Benjamin Temple, 28 June). Recruiting and supply problems delayed troops under Brig. Gen. Charles Scott being raised in Virginia for service in the southern army (see Scott to GW, 10 June and 20 July, and GW to Scott, 28 June and 8 July.

8The Continental agent for South Carolina was Abraham Livingston. For Lincoln’s efforts to procure needed military supplies, see his letter to Henry Laurens, 20 July, and Laurens to Lincoln, 13 Aug., in Laurens Papers, description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends 15:144–46, 149–52.

9Congress had permitted Lincoln, for health reasons, to turn his command over to Brig. Gen. William Moultrie (see Jay to GW, 15 May, and JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends 14:585–86; see also Jay to Lincoln, 15 May, in Smith, Letters of Delegates, description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends 12:470, and Mattern, Benjamin Lincoln, description begins David B. Mattern. Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution. Columbia, S.C., 1995. description ends 72–73).

10This word appears as “led” on the manuscript. Lincoln had been wounded in the leg near Bemis Heights, N.Y., in October 1777.

11After a long convalescence, Lincoln had joined GW at White Plains, N.Y., on 6 Aug. 1778. Congress then appointed him to command the southern army the following month (see GW to Henry Laurens, 7 Aug. 1778, and JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends 12:951).

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