Hilton Head’s untold history: HHI versus Great Britain
Story by Richard Thomas
HHI versus Great Britain
The planters of indigo on the sea islands of Georgia and South Carolina were among the richest men in the Colonies in the days prior to the American Revolution. As the economy of South Carolina was the richest in the entire British Empire at the time, the Lowcountry planters were the most heavily taxed, and revolutionary sentiments developed early and deeply in the Port Royal Sound area. While Beaufort had a well-entrenched Loyalist base, the Savannah population had vacillating loyalties, and enclaves along the May River and Daufuskie Island were Tories. Hilton Head was a Patriot stronghold from the beginning.
In 1775, the Council of Safety for the Colony of South Carolina tasked the Beaufort District militia with preventing and seizing any shipments to or from the lower coastal ports (Beaufort and Savannah) that might aid the British cause. In September, members of the Hilton Head militia aboard South Carolina scout boats and a Georgia Navy schooner seized a shipment of gunpowder destined for Savannah to aid Loyalist militia and Indian allies. It was the first armed conflict of the Revolution in South Carolina. When British forces captured Savannah in December 1779, their attention turned to securing control of the mainland between there and Charleston, and the Beaufort District Militia was the only stationary force in the way.
Hilton Head’s militia was known for its far-reaching raids and support of Continental Army forces as part of the Beaufort District Regiment. The HHI militiamen fought in battles from Savannah to Charleston and were called The Bloody Legion by the Loyalist Charleston and Savannah newspapers. Forays by British regulars and Tory militia units frequently invaded Hilton Head’s shores to punish Patriot sympathizers, and British forces landed on the Island three times, raiding Patriot deepwater frontage homes, burning them to the ground and capturing slaves for resale to the West Indies. In five separate incidents in 1780 and 1781, the Bloody Legion retaliated against British interests in the area and inflicted heavy casualties in the process. By the time the surrender of Cornwallis was accepted at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, the Beaufort District Militia had been given credit for helping occupy Cornwallis’s army in the Lowcountry long enough to prevent his consolidating forces with British armies in Virginia while Washington orchestrated their isolation.
In the years leading up to the War of 1812, although it had no offensive capability, Hilton Head was randomly targeted by British warships as they cruised in and out of Port Royal Sound. Deepwater frontage homes were bombarded by cannons, and a few were destroyed in what appears to be a desire for revenge by the English for the role Hilton Head played in the Revolution. Two British warships regularly patrolled local waters, destroying shipyards on Broad Creek and shelling homes along Broad and Skull creeks, again seemingly seeking retribution for Hilton Head’s resistance during the Revolution.