Within some Beaufort County woods, a historic treasure is discovered. The land may not appear as much more than trees, grass, and limbs beside busy traffic on Highway 21 below the sounds of fighter jets buzzing the skies. However, Battlefield Archaeologist Daniel Battle says the site was once much more, the spot where American soldiers confronted the British in the Battle of Port Royal Island on February 3, 1779.
The Battle of Port Royal Island is also called the Battle of Beaufort, or the Battle of Grays Hill. It was the first battle in South Carolina, once the British invaded from Georgia. It was an American victory, and costly for the British.
“This is the first time that the Americans had a victory during the invasion that was going on in the South. This was the first victory here. It was very important psychologically,” Battle says.
He says two of the nine signers of the Declaration of Independence who fought in the war fought in the Battle of Port Royal Island. One of those men was Thomas Heyward, Jr.
Until now, Battle says little was known about its location. His nonprofit GARPA (the Georgia American Revolutionary Preservation Alliance) has been searching for the site for about four months.
“If we’d have been standing here on February 3, 1779, we’d have literally had our heads shot off from the artillery that was coming across this general area,” Battle said as he surveyed the highway-side forest on Thursday.
He poured over letters and documents, first-hand accounts of those who fought in the battle, to lead him to the discovery. Accounts told of those who died in battle and are laid to rest at The Parrish Church of St. Helena cemetery; the first American who died in the battle, Benjamin Wilkins, is buried there. There are also two British officers who were relocated from battleground graves to the church graveyard for a more honorable burial.
All of these details in writings blazed the way for Battle to uncover the battleground. He read about the topography of the field, described as having hills around a swamp. He studied the directions and miles outside of Beaufort the writers detailed.
“I found evidence of an exchange of a fire field, a battlefield area where you have the British on one side and the Americans are exchanging a lot of led musket balls,” Battle says.
Battle says he could tell the direction of fire and attack from the artifacts he found.
“This is where the British were trying to rush up at the Americans in a bayonet attack,” he explained, gesturing through the woods, “and [Americans] start shooting their artillery, grape shot, right into the masses of the British.”
Now, it’s a matter of preserving the land. Battle hopes it can be returned to the way it’s thought to have looked in 1779, as a battlefield. He hopes it can become a history park, and be marked.
“You know, what Americans did to gain independence here, it rippled through the world,” Battle says.
He says he’s working with other nonprofits for funding.
“But we know that the real work at hand if you want to try to preserve a site like this, you’re going to go out and find basically lobby some people to actually be interested in this,” Battle says. “The public does not quite understand all the events and how important they were in the South.”
That’s where the South Carolina Battlefield and Trust organization out of Charleston comes into play. Doug Bostick says he’s working to fund the preservation, speaking with Beaufort County officials on opening the site along the Spanish Moss Trail. Beaufort County Administrator Gary Kubic confirms it’s a work in progress.