|Battle of the Combahee River
|Beaufort, South Carolina
The Battle of the Combahee River was a skirmish of the American Revolutionary War fought on August 26, 1782, near Beaufort, South Carolina, one of many such unimportant confrontations to occur before the British evacuated Charleston in December 1782. Of note is the death of 27-year-old Colonel John Laurens, “one of the bravest and most gallant of the American officers.”
British forces had essentially been under siege in Charleston since late 1781 due to the activity of General Nathanael Greene’s forces in the area. General Alexander Leslie requested a truce in March 1782 and permission to purchase food for his garrison and for the inhabitants of the city. When Greene refused, General Leslie announced his intention to resume his armed forays to seize provisions by force. Greene created a 300-man light brigade of infantry and cavalry under the command of General Mordecai Gist of Maryland to oppose such forays.
On August 21, General Leslie sent out two foraging expeditions. One went out to St. Helena’s Parish, and the other, under Major William Brereton, went up the Combahee River. When Greene learned of these movements, he sent Gist’s force to the Combahee to oppose Brereton’s movements. Gist arrived at the north bank of the river on the 25th, but Brereton had already arrived and taken control of the ferry. Gist learned the next day that 300 of Brereton’s men had crossed the river, so he sent a detachment over to deal with them, while he sent Laurens with 50 Delaware infantry and artillery captain with a howitzer to man a redoubt at Chehaw Point, where they might fire on the British as they came downriver. Laurens spent that evening visiting with friends who lived on the way, and left for Chehaw Point at about 3 am on the morning of August 27.
The British had anticipated Gist’s maneuvers and had quietly drifted downriver. Before Laurens could reach Chehaw Point, 150 soldiers set up an ambush along the road to the point. Gist discovered the British departure at 4 am and immediately led 150 cavalry after Laurens.
While sources disagree whether Laurens ordered an attack or was surprised in the ambush, battle was engaged, and Laurens fell with mortal wounds in the first volley. The artillery captain also fell, as did others, and the troops retreated in disarray, leaving the howitzer behind. Gist and the cavalry arrived in time to cover their retreat, but he was unable to recover the howitzer or dislodge the British from their position.
The British eventually returned to their boats, and Brereton’s men continued to forage while Gist dealt with the aftermath of the battle. Laurens and one other man died on the field, and 19 more were wounded.