The American Revolution in South Carolina

  Breach Inlet Naval Battle

  June 28-29, 1776


Patriot Cdr:

Col. William Thomson
British Cdr:

General
Sir Henry Clinton
Killed:

1
Killed:

100
Wounded:

4
Wounded:

51
Captured:

0
Captured:

0
Old District: 

Charles Town District
Present County:

Charleston County

On June 9th, General Sir Henry Clinton landed his ground forces ashore on Long Island just across from Sullivan's Island from the Breach Inlet. The South Carolinians on Sullivan's Island and at Haddrell's Point watched the British land and carry their supplies ashore.

On June 16th, General Clinton rode out into heavy surf and conducted his own reconnaissance of Sullivan's Island. He concluded that his troops should not waste their time firing upon Fort Moultrie from Long Island nor should they attempt to cross the water between Long Island and Sullivan's Island anywhere other than the Breach, at the northern tip of Sullivan's Island. Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Parker had earlier mis-informed General Clinton that the Breach was only eighteen inches deep at low tide and that his men could stroll across from Long Island to Sullivan's Island.

On the same day, a few British sailors on board the HMS Ranger deserted to Fort Moultrie, and they informed Col. William Thomson (SC 3rd Regiment) that there were approximately 2,800 men under the command of General Clinton.

On June 19th, the British 1st Brigade marched up to the Breach and looked across the inlet to witness the recently acquired Patriot re-inforcements awaiting them on Sullivan's Island - their enemy appeared to be "entrenched up to their eyes." General Clinton was convinced that he was facing over 4,000 Patriots. That night, several of General Clinton's men were shot by Patriot sentries just across the water, so the British quickly moved back out of reach.

On the 21st, Col. William Thomson's men fired several artillery shots at the armed schooner HMS Lady William and a pilot boat lying in the creek between Long Island and the mainland. For the next few days, the British reciprocated by lobbing a few shells onto Sullivan's Island, but without any effect.

President John Rutledge grew impatient with the taciturn General Clinton so he offered a reward of thirty guineas to any man who could capture one of the British on Long Island. On the night of June 24th, three of Col. Thomson's men decided to go for the reward - two working together, and one lone rifleman. The lone rifleman laid in ambush until the morning when he spotted two figures approaching. They fired first, striking him in the thigh - it was the other two Patriots, who didn't recognize their compadre until they were halfway back across the waterway.

The next morning, a British patrol followed the tracks of the three riflemen and started to cross the Breach - which they continued to "assume" was only eighteen inches deep at low tide. Col. Thomson's battery on Sullivan's Island fired upon them before they could wet their boots, so they marched to an oyster bank and began firing at the Patriots, again with no effect.

The Patriots approached their position to within 200 yards, firing sporadically, and killing one of the British soldiers. When the South Carolinians reached about 180 yards, the British fired a well-aimed volley that stopped them for about ten minutes. By now, the British brought down two 6-pounders to the beach and began firing upon the Patriots and their artillery, but the British lost two men making this happen.

At the oyster bank, the British built a small battery and placed two howitzers, two mortars, and the two 6-pounders in it. They fired upon the Patriots for several days - and in the British records they claim to have killed several Patriots, but no American records substantiate their claim.

General Clinton was hesitant to cross the Breach because the Patriots had dug two entrenchments, one 500 yards behind the other. After skirmishing across the waterway on June 25th, the Patriots dug a second battery 500 yards back to remain out of range from the British artillery. The forward battery had a swamp on one side and abatis in the front. General Clinton wrote, "it was apparent that the few men I had boats for, advanced singly through the narrow channel uncovered and unprotected, could not now attempt a landing without a manifest sacrifice."

On June 27th, twenty of the Royal Highalnd Emigrants set up an ambush near the oyster bank battery. They had watched the Catawba Indians under Patriot Capt. Samuel Boykin move out earlier and guessed the route they would use to return. As the Catawbas moved in file along the open beach, the Loyalists fired upon them. Patriot Capt. Henry William Harrington (Cheraws District Regiment of Militia) was observing from Haddrell's Point and later wrote, "the enemy began to fire, and aimed their shot directly at the Indians, who caused us to laugh heartily by their running and tumbling, several of them whooping and firing their muskets over their shoulders backward. I confess, though the bullets poured around me, I laughed my inclination."

Around two o'clock on the day that the British ships were attacking Fort Moultrie (same day - June 28th), General Clinton's ground forces prepared to mount an attack from their base on Long Island, across the Breach Inlet. They marched down to the beach as the noise of the naval battle echoed around the harbor, growing louder each minute. The schooner HMS Lady William and the sloop HMS Ranger flanked the ground troops, protecting them from any attack from the SC Navy's Defense. A flotilla of fifteen flatboats, with light guns on their bows, also covered them.

Due to the small number of boats, only roughly 700 British soldiers could cross at a time. One flatboat could only carry one company of men. General Clinton ordered the 1st Brigade to their flatboats while the 33rd Regiment and part of the artillery crossed over to Green Island where the oyster shell battery had been built earlier. The 2nd Brigade had been ordered to the beach on Long Island to await their chance to cross the Breach when the fifteen flatboats were to return.

General Sir Henry Clinton had asked Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Parker to send some frigates to the west to enfilade the fort on Sullivan's Island. While this was going on, General Clinton would attack the Patriot battery on Haddrell's Point and attempt to take Mount Pleasant. Vice-Admiral Parker agreed, but his ships ran aground on what would later become Fort Sumter, and one of the ships, the HMS Actaeon, was burned.

General Clinton, unaware of the Navy's misfortunes, commenced an artillery bombardment on the Patriot position prior to landing his assault troops. A large Coehorn mortar fired into the far battery, while two howitzers and two 6-pounders fired into the forward battery. The Patriots returned fire by sending grapeshot from their 16-pounder into the British breastworks. Musket and rifle balls whistled among the British troops, but the breastwork was so high that no one was injured.

A British Dr. Forster witnessed this battle and later wrote:

"I saw infinite numbers of the Bristol's shot go over the enemy's battery, they kept perpetually raking the sand for a mile beyond it, some few came within a quarter mile of the point where we were stationed, in short they raked the whole island, and had they not been deeply entrenched they must have been knocked all to pieces. After the first half hour, not an American showed his face, but all kept snug in their trenches, their one 18-pounder that was levelled at us of the first Brigade was entirely supplied by slaves only."

Seven hundred Virginians and South Carolinains re-inforced Col. William Thomson's SC 3rd Regiment that afternoon. The firing at the Breach Inlet went well into the night, even after the British ships had retreated. Dr. Forster again wrote, "half the Army was up to the knees in a swamp all the time expecting orders to cross the creek every minute. At daybreak, we were much alarmed at a fire we saw on board HMS Actaeon, which burnt dreadfully for a quarter of an hour then she blew up with vast explosion."

At 6 o'clock in the morning of June 29th, the British were ordered to cross over the Breach in the boats that were again waiting for them. The 15th Regiment under Lt. Col. John Bird and the 28th Regiment under Lt. Col. Robert Prescott boarded their boats. The men did not seem concerned. Dr. Forster again wrote:

"I never saw people go upon any business with greater alacrity, every soul was in the highest spirits, notwithstanding the disadvantages of having been eighteen hours under arms up to their knees in a swamp and nothing to eat or drink at the time. The men had orders to reserve their fire till they could bayonet the Yankees as they call the rebel enemies, the common men are highly exasperated against the Provincials, they say it is not fair fighting, their aiming from their barrel guns."

What happened on this second day may be one of the biggest cover-ups in the Revolutionary War. As one might expect, there are two versions as to what happened. The "official" British government version states that the troops did not attempt a crossing and there were no casualties. Dr. Forster again wrote that:

"The boats had put from the shore and in ten minutes would have reached the other side, they returned, disembarked and marched on the strand in as solemn a silence as a funeral possession."

The South Carolina and American General Gazette recorded that "the soldiers even got in their boats, and a number of shells were thrown into our intrenchments, but did no other damage than wounding one soldier, notwithstanding which, they never once attempted to land." General Clinton wrote that the British Regulars on the island "remained all the time on the sands anxiously looking for some signal to let them know what the squadron was doing."

The other version of what happend is from American accounts, and from reports of a few British sailors. In this version, Col. William Thomson (SC 3rd Regiment) waited until the boats were within rifle range, and then opened up at point-blank range with his one 18-pounder and a 6-pounder field gun. The Patriot rifles and muskets fired relentlessly into the oncoming flatboats. Col. Thomson's Rangers manned the cannons and aimed them like large bore rifles - having never before fired artillery.

Richard Hutson, a delegate to the Continental Congress and a signer of the Articles of Confederation, later wrote to his brother:

"I arrived at Fort Johnson [Moultrie] about an hour after the engagement had begun, where I had a full view. A more awfully pleasing sight I never beheld." He continued, "The land forces on Long Island, in the meantime, strained every nerve to affect a landing on the back, but the eighteen pounder with grape-shot spread havoc, devastation and death, and always made them retire faster than they advanced."

A British observer, Alexander Forrester, stated:

"It was impossible for any set of men to sustain so destructive a fire as the Americans poured in upon them on this occasion; that is was the destructive fire from Col. Thomson's fort which prevented the flotilla from advancing and not the shoals and sand bars, as was alleged, it was the repulse of the flotilla which prevented General Clinton from fording the inlet, and not the depth of the water."

Daniel Stevens wrote that the British had launched their flatboats, "but soon discovered it was meant as a feint."

After attempting two landings and suffering heavy casualties General Sir Henry Clinton ordered his flatboats back to Long Island. During this, the Patriots had one man wounded by British artillery fire.

Known Patriot Participants

Known British/Loyalist Participants

Col. William Thomson - SC 3rd Regiment of Rangers Commanding Officer, with Major Samuel Wise and 300 Rangers in the following four (4) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Robert Anderson
- Capt. John Caldwell
- Capt. John Donaldson
- Capt. Robert Goodwyn

SC 4th Regiment of Artillery detachment led by Lt. William Mitchell with 2 guns

Lower Craven County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Lt. Col. Daniel Horry with 200 men

Orangeburgh District Regiment of Militia detachment led by Col. Christopher Rowe with 200 men

Berkeley County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Capt. Hezekiah Maham

Camden District Regiment of Militia detachment led by Capt. John Couturier

Colleton County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Capt. Isaac Hayne - Pon Pon Company

Georgetown District Regiment of Militia detachment - Racoon Company of Riflemen - led by Capt. John Allston with 50 men

Indian Company of Rovers - Capt.-Lt. John Withers

Catawba Indian Company of Rovers - Capt. Samuel Boykin

NC 1st Regiment detachment led by Lt. Col. Thomas Clark with 200 men in five (5) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Thomas Allen
- Capt. George Lee Davidson
- Capt. Alfred Moore
- Capt. Robert Rowan
- Capt. John Walker

VA 8th Regiment led by Col. Peter Muhlenberg with 500 men in the following ten (10) known companies, led by:
- Capt. John Stevenson - 1st Company
- Capt. Jonathan Clark - 2nd Company
- Capt. George Slaughter - 3rd Company
- Capt. William Darke - 4th Company
- Capt. Richard Campbell - 5th Company
- Capt. Abel Westfall - 6th Company
- Capt. David Stephenson - 7th Company
- Capt. Thomas Berry - 8th Company
- Capt. James Knox - 9th Company
- Capt. William Croghan - 10th Company

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General Sir Henry Clinton - Commanding Officer

1st Brigade of British Regulars led by Lt. Col. James Webster with Major Thomas Musgrave and the following units:

4th Regiment of Foot (King's Own) Light Infantry Company led by Capt. William Glanville Eveleyn

15th Regiment of Foot Light Infantry Company led by Capt. "Unknown"

28th Regiment of Foot Light Infantry Company led by Capt. "Unknown"

33rd Regiment of Foot Light Infantry Company led by Capt. William Dansey

44th Regiment of Foot Light Infantry Company led by Capt. Primrose Kennedy

46th Regiment of Foot Light Infantry Company led by Capt. "Unknown"

54th Regiment of Foot Light Infantry Company led by Capt. "Unknown"

57th Regiment of Foot Light Infantry Company led by Capt. "Unknown"

28th Regiment of Foot led by Lt. Col. Robert Prescott

37th Regiment of Foot led by Lt. Col. Robert Abercromby

Royal Regiment of Artillery, 4th Battalion, Number 1 Company, Number 2 Company, and Number 4 Company with 138 men and 10 guns

2nd Brigade led by Brigadier General Charles, Lord Cornwallis with the following units:

15th Regiment of Foot led by Lt. Col. John Bird

33rd Regiment of Foot led by Lt. Col. James Webster

46th Regiment of Foot led by Lt. Col. Enoch Markham

54th Regiment of Foot led by Lt. Col. Alured Clarke

57th Regiment of Foot led by Lt. Col. John Campbell

1st Marines led by Brigadier General John Vaughn with 700 men

Provincial Troops - 2nd Battalion (Young Highlanders) led by Capt. Alexander Campbell with 70 men, including Lt. Lachlan McDonald, Lt. Stratton, and Ensign McDougall

Royal Navy:

Sloop HMS Ranger - Lt. Roger Willis, with 8 guns

Schooner HMS Lady William - Lt. Richard Whitworth, with 8 tuns

Armed Transport HMS Sovereign - Capt. Flynn

Armed Transport HMS Delegate - Capt. "Unknown"

Armed Transport HMS Nancy - Capt. "Unknown"

Armed Transport HMS Pallissoe - Capt. "Unknown"

Armed Transport HMS Myrtle - Capt. "Unknown"

Armed Transport HMS Earl of Derby - Capt. "Unknown"

Armed Transport HMS Saville - Capt. "Unknown"

Armed Transport HMS Glasgow Packet - Capt. "Unknown"

Armed Transport HMS Harcourt - Capt. "Unknown"

Armed Transport HMS Jenny - Capt. "Unknown"

Armed Transport HMS Kitty - Capt. "Unknown"

Hospital Ship HMS Pallas - Capt. "Unknown"

Hospital Ship HMS Pigot - Capt. "Unknown"

15 armed flat-bottomed boats

Total British land forces - 2,800



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