The opening move in Britain's "southern strategy" to win control of its rebellious colonies in the American Revolutionary War was the December 1778 capture of Savannah, Georgia. This heightened concerns in Charleston, South Carolina, where General Benjamin Lincoln headed the Continental Army's southern command, and the British garrison at Savannah was about the same size as his own.
By mid-April, Charleston was reinforced by the arrival of South Carolina militia, and Lincoln decided to attempt the capture of Augusta, Georgia, which was defended by a smaller garrison of British troops and Loyalists. He marched from Charleston on April 23. When British General Augustine Prevost learned of this movement, he decided to counterthrust against militia forces at Purrysburg, South Carolina, just upriver from Savannah, marching 2,500 men out on April 29. The militia at Purrysburg, about 1,000 men under the command of General William Moultrie, fell back toward Charleston rather than engaging Prevost, and sent messengers to Lincoln warning him of the British movement. Prevost decided to pursue them almost all the way to Charleston.
On May 10, companies from the two forces skirmished near Ashley Ferry, about seven miles (11.3 km) from Charleston. Two days later Prevost intercepted a message from which he learned that Lincoln was rapidly marching back to Charleston, and decided to retreat. His army was slowed by having taken supplies en route, so he decided to leave a rear guard at Stono Ferry, between Johns Island and the mainland, removing most of his army to Savannah by boat on June 16. Prevost placed Lieutenant Colonel John Maitland in charge of the rear guard, which numbered about 900 men. A bridgehead was established on the north side of an area now known as New Cut Church Flats; this was meant to cover Stono Ferry. Three strong redoubts were built, circled by an abatis and manned by Highlanders and Hessians.
Lincoln, on his arrival in Charleston, decided to mou...