By Scott Graber
It is Friday, and I’m on my still damp deck. It’s early — reveille has just sounded over on Parris Island — and I’m thinking that 2020 was, for the most part, awful. But something good happened on Dec. 30, 2020.
Just before noon on Dec. 30, Beaufort County took ownership of a building and 12 acres of land just off Highway 21. This building, about a mile west of the MCAS Beaufort runway, is not particularly remarkable. Passing motorists are, by and large, unaware that anything important happened here.
But in February 1779, Major James Gardiner was approaching the property (there was no building) with the 16th Regiment of Foot and two battalions from the 60th Regiment of Foot. He was intent on establishing a base on Port Royal Island for potential operations against Charleston.
On Feb. 3, 1779, General William Moultrie and his Continental Regulars advanced westerly, from Beaufort, to stop Major Gardiner. Among his troops were a number of African Americans as well as a militia unit recruited from Charleston’s Jewish population. Also present were Thomas Heyward and Edward Rutledge — signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Moultrie and Gardiner met on this wet, boggy, unremarkable real estate and at first they exchanged cannon fire. It is notable that Thomas Heyward handled two 6-pound field cannons and one of his rounds took out a British gun.
In those days, these cannons were made of bronze and had a range of 1,500 yards. The accuracy of these weapons was largely based on the triangulation skills of the young men who operated the guns.
Then the Brits lined up and advanced with fixed bayonets. Normally this was a signal for the American militia to run. But in this case they stayed and, in fact, advanced on the British.
Moultrie would later write that the action was “reversed from the usual way of fighting between the British and Americans, they taking the bushes and we taking the open ground.”
The battle continued for another 45 minutes when both sides began to run out of ammunition. General Moultrie had begun his withdrawal when Major Gardiner broke off the battle and left the field to the Americans. Upon his return to Savannah, Major Gardiner was criticized by British General August Prevost for his failure.
And so, this local shoot-out went down as a “win” for the Continentals when we really needed a “W.” (In many cases our Revolutionary War ancestors retreated when they came face to face with Regular Army soldiers of British or Scottish persuasion. So this face-to-face victory gave our ragged forefathers a significant lift for flagging spirits throughout the Colonies.)
Some residents may wonder why Beaufort County bought this property when battlefield attendance is down. Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Chickamauga and Vicksburg saw 3.1 million visitors in 2018, down from 10.2 million visitors in 1970. Gettysburg saw just 950,000 visitors in 2018, this being 14 percent of what they had in 1970.
But, of course, we are talking about Civil War battlefields and that particular conflict is now approaching My Lai / Wounded Knee status in some people’s minds.
Actually some Civil War venues are seeing an increase in attendance — Stones River near Murfeesboro, Tenn. — by emphasizing running or hiking through a well-maintained pastoral landscape. Other Civil War museums are putting emphasis on slavery, deprivation on the home front and generally getting away from cannon, carnage and turning movements.
It is anticipated that our battlefield will be connected to the Spanish Moss Trail thus providing a not-so-arduous destination for downtown, cycle-riding visitors. There also might be emphasis on the Jewish Unit that fought; or the fact that an African American was part of this fight.
County Council kept this pending purchase under wraps for several years, fearing that metal-detecting collectors would over-run the site. The Navy, who also helped with the purchase monies, was concerned that crowds might jeopardize their AICUZ landing zone worries. But all these problems were resolved on Dec. 30, 2020.
Notwithstanding the fact that Thomas Heyward ably manned the 6-pounders — and was wounded in this battle — he did own slaves. And Jim Capers, the African American in the fray, never got his pension despite his appeals.
The record at Gray’s Hill reflects valor, tactical skill and luck. It is also evidence that we are not a perfect people. But, regardless, we still seek perfection. And yes, in spite of everything, we want to remember.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.