The Lost Troopers: Beaufort, SC

“The more merciful acts thou dost, the more mercy thou wilt receive.”
-William Penn, Philosopher

Among the headstones of Beaufort, South Carolina’s St. Helena Episcopal Church stands a single stone which denotes the burial site of two officers of the British Army, Lt. William Calderwood and Ens. John Finley. The burial site of Calderwood and Finley, located along the western wall of the churchyard, may be the only two identifiable gravesites, by name and location, of the estimated 47,000 British and Hessian soldiers who died fighting the Patriot army in the American Revolution. The headstone reads:

Here lie the bodies of
Lieut. William Calderwood and Ensign John Finley
of Col. Prevost’s British troops.
Killed in Battle near Grey’s Hill Feb. 3, 1779
Buried here Feb. 5, 1779
Rest In Peace

Following a British victory in the First Battle of Savannah on December 29, 1778, British Gen. Augustine Prevost set his sights on taking control of Port Royal and gaining ground one step closer to Charleston. This plan was part of a larger strategy that involved attacking ports in the southernmost point of the colonies and working their way north, taking the busiest ports one at a time and by land. Prevost sent an expeditionary force of 200 battle-hardened troopers of the 16th Regiment, also known as the Queen’s Own Light Dragoons, and the 60th Regiment, also known as the Royal American Regiment, under the command of Maj. William Gardner, to take the town of Beaufort and secure Port Royal Sound, effectively excluding its use by Continental forces.

Gardner traveled by boat from Savannah, landing his troops on present day Laurel Bay Plantation on February 2, 1779. With little or no opposition from Continental forces stationed at Fort Lyttelton, Gardner assumed that taking Beaufort would not be a difficult task; however, communications of the British incursion were sent to Continental Gen. Benjamin Lincoln who immediately dispatched Gen. William Moultrie, the hero of the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, to repel the British. The two armies met near Beaufort, South Carolina on the morning of February 3, 1779.

The British force, consisting of 200 infantrymen, lined up with their backs to a tree line near the top of Grey’s Hill. The Patriot force, consisting of 300 militiamen commanded by Moultrie, three artillery pieces commanded by Thomas Heyward Jr. and Edward Rutledge, both of whom were signers of the Declaration of Independence, and 15 to 20 cavalrymen commanded by Beaufort native Capt. John Barnwell, lined up on open ground below Grey’s Hill. Heyward and Rutledge opened the battle with concentrated cannon fire, consisting of six-pound solid cannonballs and grapeshot, directly into the center and left flank of the British line. In the confusion of the cannon fire, General Moultrie’s militia moved forward to open fire on the British lines with musket shot. The major portion of the battle lasted only 45 minutes, and Major Gardner, facing an overwhelming force and unrelenting cannon fire from the South Carolinians, withdrew from the field, leaving over one-third of his force dead or dying on the battlefield and another dozen troopers captured by the Patriots. Gardner immediately retreated to his boats and returned to Savannah.

The following day, Captain Barnwell was given the gruesome task of burying the 80 British soldiers that had fallen during the battle. It was commonplace during the American Revolution for the Continental Army to bury enemy soldiers where they had fallen or in long trenches, often dug by the British prisoners of war. Therefore, it is unclear how Barnwell decided that the bodies of Lt. William Calderwood, of the 16th Regiment, and Ens. John Finley, of the 60th Regiment, would be removed from the battlefield and placed in the cemetery at St. Helena Episcopal Church. Furthermore, Barnwell’s method of identification of the two officers is unclear. The most obvious explanation is that Barnwell used prisoners of war to identify Calderwood and Finley and that he recognized that the two fallen troopers were officers of the British line deserving of a respectable Christian burial. Upon their burial at St. Helena, Captain Barnwell is reputed to have said, “We have shown the British that we can not only best them in battle but we can also give them a Christian burial.”