Dills Bluff historical marker unveiled on Veterans Day

Mayor Woolsey, Mayor Goodwin, and Ken Scarlett.
Mayor Woolsey, Mayor Goodwin, and Ken Scarlett.

by Sandra Stringer

A very special historical marker was dedicated on November 11, 2017. Interested parties gathered at the Town of James Island hall. Bill Woolsey, Mayor of James Island, gave some brief opening remarks. Next, Paul Hedden, who has written features on James Island history for the Bugle and is the Chairman Town of James Island History Commission and a member of Friends of the Old Exchange, the S.C. Historical Society, the Charleston Library Society, Friends of McLeod Plantation, and the Slave Dwelling Project, spoke about his hope to get more historical markers put up on to keep the important historical aspect of James Island alive.

The patriots were tenacious to the end

The next speaker was Dr. Carl Borick. Dr. Borich is the Director of the Charleston Museum and lives here on James Island.  He is the author of two books on the Revolutionary War in this area, A Gallant Defense: The Siege of Charleston, 1780 and Relieve Us of This Burthen: American Prisoners of War in the Revolutionary South, 1780-1782, both published by the University of South Carolina Press.  He regularly lectures on, gives tours about and consults concerning the Revolutionary War in the Charleston area. This past summer, the Museum and the Historic Charleston Foundation (along with the College of Charleston) worked together to find archaeological evidence of the British siege lines from the Revolutionary War and he was deeply involved in that planning. Here’s what he said at the gathering:

Paul Hedden
Paul Hedden

“In two major wars in American history – the Civil War and Revolutionary War – James Island has stood as a bulwark in defense of one of the South’s most important cities.  The British focused efforts against it in 1780 as did Union forces in 1862-1864.  British forces knew once they had taken James Island they had to continue to hold it in order to secure Charleston as the war was winding down in 1782. The patriots, meanwhile, were tenacious to the end and were not going to give up the fight until the British were completely driven from South Carolina.

And so it was that American commanders saw an opportunity to strike a British work party that routinely sallied out and exposed themselves to attack.  Led by Colonel Thadeus Kozciusko, the famed volunteer Polish engineer, who had come to assist Americans gain independence, a 70-man detachment crossed from Johns Island to attack these enemy troops.  Due to faulty intelligence, they soon found that the British had greatly reinforced the work party and the British force was significantly larger and numbered 300 men including men from the 23rd, 33rd, and 71st regiments, whose men had fought in every major battle in the South.  Koz and his men fought valiantly – (4 musket balls through his coat, his spontoon was shattered and almost cut down by a British dragoon).  But the patriots were able to fight off the attackers and evacuate to safety, literally retreating across the island to escape over the Stono.  Sadly, Captain William Wilmot, who led the MD troops, was killed and Lt. Moore was mortally wounded; an enslaved African American, William Smith, who assisted the American troops, was wounded, captured and died from his wounds in captivity, ironically fighting for the freedom of his masters.  These men were the last to die in the Revolutionary struggle – right here on James Island.

Dr. Carl Borick
Dr. Carl Borick

What a remarkable occurrence that the last battle of the Revolution was fought right here on James Island.  They had come a long way from the first battle at Lexington Green – nearly 8 years earlier.  In size and scale, the battle here and the battle at Lexington were remarkably similar.  At Lexington, roughly 80 men took on the advance troops of the British army – 240 men, so the odds were about the same.  No one would dispute that that was a battle.  Much had transpired between these two battles, Lexington and Dills Bluff – thousands of lives had been lost, thousands of soldiers had lost limbs or were permanently disabled, many had lost loved ones, homes, businesses and property had been destroyed – yet despite this suffering, independence had been secured.

As an historian and preservationist, I greatly applaud the Town of James Island for holding this event today and for all who were involved in the effort in erecting this marker – how significant that the Revolution’s last battle was here among us.  I am thrilled that I will pass by this every day on my way to and from work.  On this Veterans Day, the marker should serve as a reminder to all of us of the sacrifices that have been made for our freedom throughout our history and that places here on James Island and anywhere our ancestors fought, struggled and labored should be preserved.”

Victory started here and victory was won here

Next we heard from Ken Scarlett – President of Revolutionary Charleston, who is the gentlemen you see in Revolutionary War era garments in the photos. Here’s what he had to say:

“Thank you Paul, Dr. Borick, and thank you everyone for honoring these brave soldiers who fought at Dills Bluff. Our forefathers actions here helped drive out the British Army from Charleston; THE event that gave birth to these United States.

Ken Scarlett
Ken Scarlett

With winter fast approaching, the British Army desperately needed wood to keep warm and to cook their rice rations. They estimated that 100 cords of wood a day were necessary to sustain their besieged army and loyalists.  Under cover of darkness, woodcutters and heavily armed troops came by boat to James Island to cut wood. But the Americans attacked and caused the British to discontinue these wood cutting expeditions. 30 days later the British Army evacuated Charleston by sea, ending two and a half years of ruthless occupation. The city was liberated and the war was over.

This battle highlights the fact that the Charleston area was the epicenter of the War for American Independence – “From First Protest to Final Victory”.  In fact, the first Liberty Tree in America was dedicated in Charleston, off of Alexander Street – almost 9 years before Lexington and Concord. The first boycotts and tea impoundments were here. Two liberty flags were created here. Two Charlestonians served as President of the Continental Congress. Four signers of the Declaration of Independence. The first cannon shots fired at King George’s navy came from Fort Johnson, here on James Island. The British navy suffered their worst defeat here. A European invasion and siege took place here. Three Continental Armies were sent here and Four British armies were sent here, three of which were destroyed and the fourth one left, before it disintegrated. Victory started here and Victory was won here.

According to historians who survived the war, and according to Charleston’s great American Hero and two time governor, General William Moultre, December 14, 1782, marked the victorious end to the Revolutionary War. “It is the real day of our deliverance and independence, and ought never be forgotten”, Moultre often said. It was celebrated every year until his death.

Before the unveilingDecember 14 is the day when a cease fire took place between the British occupiers of Charleston and the American Army that had them surrounded. Then the city gates were opened and His Majesty’s army was escorted out of town. Battles like Dills Bluff, a month before, kept the British bottled up and withering away. Their Southern Army Commander was confined to a sickly darkroom after his resignation was denied, wishing only to get his troops out alive and stop desertions. Let there be no doubt, this was not a leisurely evacuation. The liberation of Charleston was the culmination of a well-executed military plan outlined one year earlier in a letter to Governor Rutledge. From the British perspective, this event was a desperate escape of about 10,000 people from an isolated peninsula, covered by the entire, global British fleet; 130 ships, with cannons loaded and matches lit. They just wanted to get out of town, alive.

Suffice to say, December 14, 1782 is the day of the greatest American Victory, without loss of life, in our history. The greatest American Victory in our history deserves to be recognized and honored. Charleston was captured intact, the British quit the war and a new nation was born. On this day, America’s Divine right to rule ourselves became reality!…Shout it from the rooftops!

After the unveilingWe invite everyone to join us celebrating Victory Day, again, next year on December 14, 2018. On this day, reenactors of the American and British Armies will meet face-to-face on King Street as they did in 1782. The last British Regiment South of New York, will about face and march to their awaiting ships off Gadsden’s Wharf and Liberty Square. They will be followed by the victorious American Continental Army and the elected state government officials of South Carolina.

We invite all historical entities and lovers of history to participate and collaborate in making Victory Day the national celebration of the winning of the American Revolution. This climatic event marked the end of British offensive operations in America and caused King George III to recognize American Independence the following month. Join us in showcasing Charleston’s great Revolutionary story to the world.

Because of brave Americans like those who fought here at Dills Bluff, the British Army was forced out of Charleston forever, thereby ending the Revolutionary War and giving birth to these, United States. These men, America’s first veterans, are forever owed the thanks of a grateful nation. Thank you.”

Unveiling the Dills Bluff historical marker

Next we all drove over to the site. Gathered there to participate in the unveiling of the new historical marker were members of the Town of James Island staff including the mayor Bill Woolsey, Folly Beach’s Mayor Tim Goodwin, the speakers, and members of the James Island History Commission.

The back of the markerThe text in full reads: “BATTLE OF DILLS BLUFF  The Battle of Dills Bluff, the last engagement in S.C. during the American Revolution, took place on Nov. 14, 1782. Continental Army forces under command of Col. Thaddeus Kosciusko, and led by Capt. William Wilmot’s 2nd Maryland and Lt. John Markland’s 1st Pennsylvania Regiments, attached a force of British infantry and cavalry on the south side of James Island Creek. The British regulars were prepared for the attack, possibly through advance intelligence, and able to rush reinforcements to the field. The Continentals were outnumbered five to one and quickly overwhelmed. Markland was wounded; Wilmot and Lt. Moore of the Maryland line were killed. A slave named William Smith was wounded and taken prisoner. The British would evacuate Charleston in Dec. 1782.”

If you want to see it, coming onto James Island on Harborview Road, turn right on North Shore Drive and you’ll see it on the side of the road on your right as the road veers sharply left. If you want to get out and see, find a good parking place, walk over, and be very careful to watch for cars!

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